Saturday, December 06, 2008

Shock! Violence in Crime Fiction!

I admit it: I read author Patricia Cornwell’s early work, and I understand why it won publishers’ backing. Her first novel fit nicely into the niche Thomas Harris had carved out with his just slightly older book, The Silence of the Lambs (1988). But now it seems the creator of medical examiner Kay Scarpetta is questioning the intensely graphic direction in which this genre is heading. The Guardian’s Alison Flood quotes Cornwell as saying:
“It’s too realistic in many ways, it has transitioned into something rather frightening, something rather savage, and maybe it needs to revert back a little bit to being a little more deductive and civilised and cerebral,” she tells books site Galleycat, in an interview about her new book Scarpetta.

But until Cornwell came along in 1990 with her first Kay Scarpetta thriller, Postmortem, in which Scarpetta investigates a series of “sex slayings”, crime fiction wasn’t nearly as gruesomely explicit as it is these days.

This--“As long as her knees were bent, the loop around her neck remained loose. When she straightened her legs, either in a reflex to pain or because of the assailant's weight on top of her, the ligature around her neck tightened like a noose ... Her face was grotesque, swollen beyond recognition and a dark bluish purple from the suffusion of blood caused by the tight ligature around her neck”--from Postmortem would never have been found in Agatha Christie.

But the public lapped it up, and Cornwell created a new genre of explicit crime (although I’m sure there must be a better label for it), with her disciples today including Karin Slaughter, Kathy Reichs and Tess Gerritsen.

And the gruesomeness just keeps getting worse: try the horrible premises of the bestselling Richard Montanari (in The Rosary Girls, for example, “a series of young Catholic women are found dead, their bodies mutilated and their hands bolted together”), or Chelsea Cain’s frighteningly sadistic serial killer Gretchen Lowell in Heartsick.
Call me cynical, but I’d take Cornwell’s criticism more seriously if it weren’t for the fact that she’s promoting a new book and therefore trying to drum up media attention in any way she can.

READ MORE:Patricia Cornwell’s Long-Running Series on Life Support?,” by Clayton Moore (Rocky Mountain News).


Donna said...

I'm don't generally read graphic thrillers or mysteries, though there have been some I've enjoyed (Silence, for one).

If graphic violence were the only choice if you wanted to read mysteries I'd object, but there are plenty of cozy mysteries. And the historical mysteries I favor -- Lindsey Davis, Anne Perry, Steven Saylor -- aren't overly graphic either.

Anonymous said...

Man, I hate serial killer novels. Silence is a great novel though.

Anonymous said...

There's a difference between violence and graphic violence. I don't think the choice is simply between graphic violence and cozies.

I've been reading crime fiction for over a year now and most of what I've read contains a tolerable level of violence without describing things in disgusting detail. I came across a few books that put sickening images in my head so I stopped reading those authors. If you're going to gross me out, I'm not going to buy your stuff.

I did once write to the editor of this blog asking if he knew of a list on the web that might provide a guide for degrees of violence in crime fiction, and alas never received a response. Luckily I haven't wasted too much money on books whose authors delight in describing cruelty and violence in loving detail.