By Margaret Lucke
I read a wide range of crime fiction, and usually I love a dark story. Yet recently I reached the halfway point in a suspense novel I was reading and decided I'd had enough (though I confess that I peeked at the ending).
This book was an Edgar nominee for the year it came out and it had come recommended by a friend whose judgment I trust. The story involved a family being held hostage in their home by two intruders, who were unknown to the family members but clearly had some connection to events in their past. Who were they? Why were they there? What did they want? How would the family escape from this dire situation?
The plot was intriguing, the characters well drawn, and the writing style smooth and engaging. The problem for me was that while I was reading, the words "torture porn" kept looping through my head. The agony being inflicted on the family members was described in detail. More than that -- it was lovingly depicted in excruciating, unnecessary detail.
When I read a novel, I like to share the experience of the characters. To me, that's the point of reading fiction, and it's a goal I try to accomplish for my readers in the books that I write. But this was not an experience I wanted or needed to endure.
Can a book be too dark? That one was, at least for me.
I've also put aside books that were too light. I recall a cozy whose opening scene had the protagonist walking through a park. She stumbles on the body of a young woman, someone she knows. She calls the police, who talk to our heroine and begin their investigation. That night, in chapter two, our heroine tells her husband what happened. "Just think," she says, clapping her hands with excitement, "we have our very own murder mystery right here in our little town." (I'm paraphrasing here.)
No. To me, that reaction was all wrong. The day you come across a dead body is not a good day. Rather than respond with glee at the chance to solve a real-life mystery, someone who isn't professionally involved in law enforcement is likely to go to bed, pull the covers over her head, and quiver. She might well have a strong desire to find the killer, but she wouldn't think of the quest as entertainment.
I didn't get past that second chapter, and I've not been tempted to read anything else in that particular series.
I've realized that what matters to me as a reader, and as a writer, is getting the emotions right. This applies to both characters and authors.
How would this character feel when confronted with this situation? How would those feelings drive his or her actions?
Does this author understand and respect the gravity of the impact that violence has on people? Or is he or she using violence to shock and titillate?
Too often, books at both the darkest and lightest ends of the spectrum of crime fiction get the emotions wrong. At least they seem wrong to me. And that's when I quit reading.