Sunday, July 20, 2008

Slice and dice, up to a point

Val McDermid, Thomas Harris and now Mo Hayder are probably the three genuinely creepiest slice-and-dice merchants in my extensive crime library. Patricia Cornwell thinks up some fairly disgusting scenarios but she is simply not as good a writer, or as intelligent, or as able to move far beyond her own image of herself being-a-writer, as any of those three.

But I'm currently reading, for work, a slice-and-dice called Blood Brother or Brothers by someone I'd not heard of before (you can tell can't you, that I don't have the book to hand and don't want to get up from this nice warm chair to go get it). And I was telling D and M over our regular Saturday coffee yesterday that this one is a little bit too icky even for me. The crazed serial killer's modus slaughterendi is very heavily gender-inflected (= wimmin'-hatin') and not in any kind of a nice way.

I've never actually worried before about my interest in icky crime -- I like books and TV shows about messy heads, not boring boys' games of spying and corruption and so on, which is why some Ian Rankins have appealed and others have not. Messy heads, profilers, pathologists. It's something to do with the power of narrative, the strong chain of cause and effect hauling the reader along, and the pleasures of problem-solving. The thing I particularly love about crime fiction is that the plot itself describes what is essentially an act of reading: of interpreting the state of the dead body, working backwards, or perhaps I mean outwards, from the state of the body to solve the crime.

But I was saying to D and M that I have started to worry a bit, for the first time, about the pleasure I take in these stories. I'd always resisted the idea that it's a bit sick to like violent crime fiction but my resistance is beginning to break down.

Coincidentally, Hannibal was on the teeve last night and I was watching it with the morning's conversation in mind. I'd forgotten just how unutterably and yet irresistibly unpleasant Hannibal really is. The novel (the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs) is a complicated story involving a number of subplots, each more awful than the last and all of them featuring Hannibal Lecter rearranging other people's bodies for them. The novel was rather cleverly simplified for the screen, with some subplots left out entirely and whole scenes reduced to highly effective vignettes and replaced in a different part of the story, as with the kid on the plane hopping into Hannibal's Dean and DeLuca boxed gourmet lunch. (One of the reasons I love Harris is because he can be very funny; the original scene in the book is hilarious in a disgusting sort of way, though in the book the food is from Fauchon's in Paris. This is of course partly because in the book he's on a flight going in the other direction.)

I thought it was a better movie than a lot of other people did, though not a patch on The Silence of the Lambs, but it kept reminding me of the pleasure I took in reading the truly gruesome novel, and I'm wondering what other crime-fiction-loving readers think about this. Am I allowed to like crime fiction, or do I need to feel bad about it?


Ampersand Duck said...

I find those questions very interesting. I can't do any of it -- crime fiction, crime tv, crime movies. And it's not even the gore factor; there's just something about the initial premise of someone being murdered for our entertainment that I just can't find delightful. I've read and watched a few things but always in the back of my mind there's a voice saying 'nooooooooooooo'. And the amount of crime tv -- resulting in a dearth of anything watchable on Friday and Saturday nights -- is gobsmacking. Mind you, I admire anyone who can embrace the genre wholeheartedly whilst still retaining warm humanist values.

Have you come to any conclusion since you wrote this?

TimT said...

I read crime fiction in a small way, but not for the gore. (In general I'm not one for the idea of literature as catharsis, as a way of deliberately putting unpleasant thoughts and emotions in your way so you can deal with them. I think it's more sensible not to put those unpleasantries in your way in the first place.) No, it's more for the simple intellectual pleasures that the genre affords - the obvious an recognisable formalisms that give genre fiction its shape, the intellectual pleasures of arguing and finding out and solving crimes, and, to a certain extent, the moral satisfaction of seeing justice and truth done. I've read a bit in Sayers, and Chesterton's delicious Father Brown stories, but above all Chandler is my guiding light - and he's never, ever about the solving of a single murder, but of the whole cast of characters that come into the spotlight afterwards, and the relationships they bear to each other.

That being said, there's never one obvious reason to read a book, and gaining a bit of gorey pleasure from tales of murder and foul misdeeds is one of them. Which I suppose is a reason why genre fiction exists in the first place - it's a recognisable package that serves a number of different purposes within the one plot for the reader.

Interesting quote from the Yiddish Policemen's Union - not exactly profound, but still relevant to the point raised above about the act of 'reading' that is described within crime fiction:

"But I know enough about Landsman here - fuck, I know enough about homicide detectives period - to know that sister or no sister, this is not about finding out the truth. It's not about getting the story right. Because you and I, we know, gentlemen, thata the story is whatever we decide it is, and however nice and neat we make it, in the end a story is never going to make a damn bit of difference to the dead. What you want, Landsman, is to pay those fuckers back. But that is never going to happen. You are never going to get them. No fucking way."

Apologies for the swear words. It was the author wot dun it...!

Lucy Sussex said...

The act of reading the body is not too dissimilar from Tsvetan Todorov's description of crime fiction being two fragmented narratives: the story of the crime and the story of the investigation, which meet in resolution. But a nice 'un.
And there is an author I've sworn off ever since she nailed her heroine to the floor, which struck me as a tad excessive.

Zoe said...

I gave it up - having absorbing my mother's crime habit - after living with a housemate who announced shortly after moving in that she didn't want to watch any television shows where women got raped or murdered. Just drifted away and don't miss it. I occasionally will read something like Peter Temple, and I enjoyed the spoofy Gil Mayo Mysteries for the first time the other night.

I also got turned off books involving paedophilia plots. Just don't need to read that.

Cozalcoatl said...

I read lots of gore. I don't know why but I do.
Morbid pleasure and curiosity must play a part.
I also like the 'gentle murder' books- Eliis Peters, P.D James etc
So I'm not much help in the 'why' department.
I like mysteries and puzzles and if it involves dismemberment it doesn't bother me that much. I have thought about why I read about women (mainly) be treated so bad, maybe I know its not real and look past it to the mystery.
Its seems overall more women like to read murder mysteries than men.

Mindy said...

Some of the gorier ones are disturbing, but I still read them. Most of my fiction is now crime fiction. I'd be interested in your take on The Wasp Factory by Iain M Banks, PC. I just read it recently (it was published in the 80's) and read the critics reviews of it and then the book. It was pretty out there for its time, but now seemed a bit tamer to me. I'm wondering what has changed to make it less,I guess offensive.

JahTeh said...

I watched 'Criminal Minds' last night which was particularly gory although it was implied rather than shown. I like the show but every week I end up thinking if America really has this many crazed murderers or just crazed writers.

Kate H said...

I like Rankin but I think it's the non-murdery stuff I like the best - Rebus's battles with himself and others around him, the descriptions of Edinburgh, the other characters, the journalists etc.

That's about the only crime writing I enjoy - and I can control the gore in my head, so I can see the dead bodies from far away and without lingering on the bits and pieces.

As for the stuff on the telly, the CSI and Laura Norder stuff - that strikes me as one step removed from a snuff film.

I did quite enjoy the Wire in the Blood series however because it was so gothic and OTT.

But when I was a teenager I lived horror novels, so go figure.

Kate H said...

Ertm I mean I liked horror novels, not lived them. My teenage years were anything but horrific.

tigtog said...

I guess I always had a bias for the convoluted schemes stories anyway - I rather like the mysteries where someone's attempt at a "perfect murder" is untangled, rather than the race against the serial killer types. (I also like the spying/corruption stories that manage to avoid the toxic testosterone syndrome.) I largely stick to strict police/forensic procedurals, and the more procedural and less gory scene-setting the better.

I left the mind-of-a-serial-killer novels behind quite a while ago, when I became overwhelmed by the prurience on display regarding gratuitously lingering descriptions of the victims' despair and death. There are exceptions with something like Darkly Dreaming Dexter, where the author tips the genre conventions out and swirls them around in brilliant patterns (and his psychopathy is not gender-inflected) but generally I simply became revulsed by, as Zoe said, the parade of the rape and murder of women.

Initially I viewed L&O differently, as more of a straight procedural, but I've had a more analytical eye since I read Twisty describe L&O:SVU as "Sexxxay Victims Unit". At least the other spin-offs are not always about murder and rape.

I love the Gil Mayo mysteries. Dymocks told me the novels are mostly out of print. Bugger.