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.

5 thoughts on “Drawing a line in the sand of crime novels

  1. I am inclined to agree women in our society, and even more so in other more primitive societies, suffer quite enough violence in real life without reading about it in detail.
    I do hope the 80/20 female/male reading split with regard to general crime fiction is not repeated with this violent stuff. I must be incredibly old fashioned but I like to think of women as less violent and less drunk than men.

  2. The curious thing to me is why so much of the more sensationalist crime fiction (especially of the serial killer variety) is about women as prey. I really don’t understand why that appeals to women, particularly since it’s so far from portraying the reality of violence against women. (Try Arnaldur Indridason’s Silence of the Grave for that. Very real, and not at all salacious.)

  3. Maxine, I think Jessica Mann deserves far more than three cheers for the succinct point she made. It is interesting when comments from the industry leak out, e.g. along the lines of “this is what readers want” – do we all? – “this is what sells” – but is it the real optimum? Could, perhaps, something with more originality sell even better if it had the marketing spend and publicity that such books have applied? Are we all always drawn to be shocked or to we like to have our thoughts provoked? We will certainly not see a publisher take a risk in the recent economic climate, so will might never know.
    I think I recall which author it was who referred to “…because girls grow up knowing that ‘to be female is synonymous with being prey’”. Said at Harrogate last year, I believe. Easy to buy into if you are of a certain age and experienced a certain type of upbringing. However, there are many more approaches to upbringing and many will not relate. I remember being surprised at the time that an author of the same age as me agreed with the remark. At school, our (mainly) spinster teachers taught us that we could anything we chose to do with an education, if we worked hard. We could be fearless and achieve whatever we wanted. There was never any suggestion that we would grow up to be victim fodder for me, particularly strange and/or deranged men. We didn’t walk to school listening out to hear if we were being followed and neither did we keep looking over our shoulders. So, like you Maxine, I don’t buy into that one either.
    You make a good point on the Robotham, something that completely escaped me when I read it. But I wonder if this is because you are a mother and I am not? A good mother would notice and be concerned with the horror threatened upon her children, before considering her own situation. I differentiate with the “good” because sadly today the media brings us ever more stories of incompetent mothers and even evil ones, although the liberal elite will always try to find a way of letting us know that the “evil” mother is a victim herself for some reason.
    Apart from the thus far, only Australian-released novel from Robotham, I have read all of them and enjoyed them. They did not cross my line. But I am now on a red alert for the content of the next one after reading your thoughts. One of the intrigues of this series for me has been “where will he go next?” After all, he started the series with two characters of limited shelf life: a psychologist with Parkinson’s disease and a copper coming up to retirement.
    For me, Hayder is also a little bit hit and miss, but mainly hit. I think she does like to and seeks to shock, but not in the conventional sense to which Mann refers. I found the first two damn good within the context of reading them at the time they came out. Tokyo disappointed me. The Nanking writing was excellent but the contemporary plot flimsy. Grey was simply not a credible character for me. How on earth could someone with those mental difficulties organise and survive a trip to Tokyo? Pig Island, I enjoyed, but like many was flummoxed at the ending. (I mentioned this to someone from her publisher earlier this year as I get a great deal of hits from people looking to understand the ending, even now.) The unanswered part appears to concern the motivation of Angeline. But I admire Hayder for bringing to our attention a medical condition rarely heard of; indeed I never realised it existed. I have read the first re-visit to Caffery, own and am yet to read the next, but I am not entirely convinced yet. I will have to read Skin to make up my mind fully.
    Last point: the serial killer is indeed a cliché now. He, for it is more likely to be a “he”, is much overworked and like a fish in a kindergarten sandpit when given a UK setting.

  4. PS – as regards criminal profilers, those wonderful people necessary to the solving of serial killer crimes in the US: I reckon you could watch two seasons of Criminal Minds and qualify; you’d have all the tips and lingo. It’s all pattern and escalation with a trigger for change in pattern some time during escalation. All variations on a theme. (But I do love the series and the quirky computer whizz can always be relied up for bringing back the emotional response when required.)
    Interestingly, when I saw cast member Mandy Patinkin on stage in London in January this year (singing), a fellow member of the audience told me that he left the series after two seasons because “it was becoming too violent”.

  5. Thanks for these thoughtful comments, CFR. Just to answer your point about Shatter – I don’t think it is because I’m a mother that I found this book’s premise awful. The idea of someone holding or saying they are holding an underage girl prisoner and describing in detail the acts he is about to or is doing to them, over the phone to that girl’s mother, forcing the woman to do various things – I find that horrible (not gruesome – but “sadistic misogyny”) and don’t wish to read that kind of stuff. If others do, that’s fine – but not me!

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