Posted by Leigh Russell
There are fashions in crime fiction. Tastes change and trends are influenced by individual success stories, hit television series and popular films. A few years ago Lynda La Plante became very popular, with sales of her books boosted by Helen Mirren’s brilliant performance of Jane Tennison on television. Publishers were suddenly looking for police procedural novels. Then psychological thrillers became popular, with a movement away from ‘cosies’. Publishers wanted manuscripts to be ‘gritty’ and ‘edgy’. The depiction of violence in crime fiction became increasingly graphic, bordering on horror. As PD James wrote, “The physical act of killing a human being has an awesome and horrible fascination. All that flesh to dispose of, all that blood to be washed away.”
At one time crime authors seemed to be vying with one another to produce the most dramatic impact with scenes of violence. Reading a crime novel about severed body parts being discovered, I felt that one particular author had abandoned plausibility for the sake of shock tactics. This ruined the book for me. The very next week there was a case in the news of severed body parts found strewn over the countryside. Truth is often more extreme than fiction can dare to be. Readers of crime novels are looking for thrilling stories and love dramatic shocks, but the balance must be right. Too much violence can compromise the credibility of a book, and descriptions that are too extreme can be off putting.
Of course different readers like different degrees of violence. Within reason, how palatable it is depends entirely on personal taste. You might reasonably expect readers of the genre to anticipate some violence in a crime novel. Yet some readers are quite squeamish, steering away from violence. There’s no denying that cosies are enduringly popular. Look at the shelf space given to Agatha Christie in bookshops and libraries. At the same time, many crime readers relish guts and gore in their crime novels. “I do like a bit of blood,” readers frequently tell me, often adding words to the effect of, “aren’t I awful?” And many of the most successful crime writers give precise details about their victims’ injuries. Medically trained, Tess Gerritsen writes clinical descriptions of blood and guts which can be very graphic. Patricia Cornwell is another bestselling author who writes dispassionately about gore, having worked for a medical examiner before writing crime novels.
There is no right or wrong answer to the question of how much violence should be included in a novel. Everyone draws their own line of what is acceptable, from Agatha Christie’s inoffensive intricate plots, to the bloody bodies in Tess Gerritsen.