By Margaret Lucke
I once read that the difference between British and American mysteries is that in a British mystery the body is face down while in an American mystery the body is face up. In other words, a British book’s author would hide the violence and its nasty aftermath from the reader’s view, while an American author would bring it onstage, front and center.
This is an oversimplification, of course. It probably arose as a way to distinguish the whodunits of the Golden Age, which were often but not exclusively British, from the crime novels of American writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, who took the mystery genre in a different direction.
Golden Age stories tended to be intellectual parlor games. The object was for the reader to match wits with the clever detective, and the murder was merely the first roll of the dice to get the game going. Annoyed by the artifice of that approach, Chandler defended a more realistic kind of fiction in his influential essay, The Simple Art of Murder, first published in 1944. He recommended that stories dealing with murder, which he called “an act of infinite cruelty,” be moved from the drawing rooms and libraries of country houses to the “mean streets” where he believed they belong.
Michael Black, in his excellent LadyKillers post earlier this week, talks about the increasing bloodthirstiness of American culture since the era of Hammett and Chandler. Depictions of gore that would have been unthinkable then have become routine, not only on the page but also on the screen, with a vividness that leaves nothing to the imagination.
For myself, as both a writer and a reader, that’s where I prefer violence to occur—in my imagination. Though I abhor violence in real life, I’m a fan of dark tales, and I can accept quite a bit of violence on the page and on the screen. But only to the extent that it serves the story. When it becomes gratuitous or more graphic than necessary, my visceral ugh reaction pulls me out of the story.
With fictional violence, as with so many things, less is more, in my opinion. My imagination is capable of filling in plenty of blanks, and does so more effectively than a too-detailed description.
When wondering how best to portray a violent act in my own books, I think about my nephew’s reaction to a film when he was eight. We enjoyed watching movies together, and he liked scary films, so for this occasion I had rented The Haunting, the original 1963 version with Julie Harris and Claire Bloom. Scott was skeptical of my choice. It was old movie and filmed in black and white. How good could it be? It certainly wouldn’t be frightening.
As the film began, we sat on opposite ends of the sofa, Scott with his arms folded and making a point of yawn. As the film progressed, he moved closer and closer to me, until he was pressed against my side, eyes wide with that delicious kind of terror that a suspenseful film can create. The movie was plenty scary—yet there were no monsters, no gore, no big explosions. Just strange goings-on with hints of unknown sinister things happening behind the scenes that could make things go seriously wrong at any minute. The movie did a far better job of scaring him, and me, than most films filled with fangs ripping flash, or bombs blowing people apart, or blood spattering everywhere.
Fiction is supposed to give its readers or viewers a powerful emotional experience. Fear, anxiety, tension, anger, joy, satisfaction—those all work for me. But disguat and revulsion are not the emotions I prefer to find in fiction or anywhere, and when violence in a book takes me there, I stop reading. I’ll stop sooner than some readers, later than many others.
The border between enough and too much is often thin and hard to see. So is the border between enough and too little—avoiding violence altogether can make a book about murder seem flip and superficial, not too mention unrealistic. As a writer, my approach is this: When in doubt, remember The Haunting and trust the reader’s imagination.