I will tell you from the start: I’ve written a great book.
Part mystery, part psychological thriller—I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, and it’s been on my agent’s desk for the past 12 years because there isn’t a publisher that wants it.
Here’s the thing: in the opening scene, we learn that an eight-year-old is murdered. And according to every publisher that looked at it, readers don’t like kids getting killed.
If you’re reading this, then you’re interested in murder, which right there makes you odd by a whole lot of people’s standards. But, most of us who read crime fiction do have certain internal limits—limits that vary from reader to reader.
Like the publishers above, some of us don’t want a child killed. Some of us are all 1930s and prefer our murders to be genteel, to take place in an English country house, and to involve a minimum of thought about the body itself.
Others among us say that we read it for the puzzle aspects of figuring out who the criminal is before it’s revealed in the end.
And then, there are the hard-core readers—the true noir aficionados who don’t mind seeing some blood and perhaps a little torture as part of their relaxing Saturday-afternoon reading.
Some years ago, Clive James wrote an interesting piece for The New Yorker on the geographic settings for modern crime fiction. In it, he notes:
It took a long time for the roman policier to run through all its possible variations of plot and character. The constant advance of technology has provided new ways to stash the corpse (in the foundations of the nuclear power plant) and to track down the culprit (after the fingerprints and the phone-bill paper trail came the credit-card account, the heat signature, the carbon footprint). We’ve had increasing numbers of women detectives and the emergence of the female coroner. But, finally, there are only so many storylines and patterns of conflict. The only workable solution has been to shift the reader’s involvement from the center to the periphery: to the location. In most of the crime novels coming out now, it’s a matter not of what happens but of where.
To which I’d add, what level of violence the reader can expect. To take the metaphor out of books and over to television, fanciers of Geraldine McEwan in Marple may not be quite so fond of Thomas Gibson in Criminal Minds.
Of course, in most dramas, there’s a great deal more to the series than violence—and it’s generally not gratuitous (though faithful watchers of Downton Abbey had a lot to say about Anna’s rape leaning in that direction). Characters have backstories, plots are intricate and complex, and relationships are critical to the storylines. But then, of course, there’s the blood.
So how much is too much?
Oddly enough, in the United States, the FCC regulates sex and language on television, but not violence—that’s up to the networks.
A quick tour of a few TV shows indicates that we’re not all on the same page:
- When Happy Valley made its debut in 2014, UK’s Mediawatch found the level of violence “part of a worrying trend in TV violence,” yet most reviewers felt it to be handled well and appropriate to the story and psychological development of the protagonist, Catherine.
- The Shield features a group of detectives called the Strike Team, an anti-gang unit that maintains control of the streets (and gets a kickback or two in the process) in ways that are both violent and confrontational. Hard to tell who the “good guys” are in this drama.
- The Wire (with some of the finest writing on TV from the likes of Dennis Lehane) shows corruption, violence, betrayal, and the meltdown of a city in crisis. When I started watching, a friend advised me, “Don’t get too attached to anyone.” He was right.
These are in opposition to shows like Inspector Lewis, Foyle’s War, Marple, or even Australia’s City Homicide, where death is present but never gruesome.
And books go on in much the same way. Cozy mysteries may have someone stabbed with Aunt Edith’s knitting needle, but we generally don’t hear the victim’s last agonizing moments. Phil Rickman might scare the pants off a reader, but his violence is generally secondary to the fear thereof. Val McDiarmid is a little clearer in her portrayal of violence and the suffering of victims, and Peter Robinson also doesn’t shy away from the blood. Then there’s Jeff Lindsay, who managed novels based on someone who tortures for a good time on a Friday night.
So… how much is too much? And who gets to say?
I’d be interested in your reactions—let me know in the comments below!
Jeannette de Beauvoir is an award-winning novelist and poet whose work has been translated into 12 languages and has appeared in 15 countries. She finds that the past always has some hold on the present, and writes mysteries and historical fiction that reflect that resonance. More information at www.jeannetteauthor.com.