Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The old, old question

by Bill Kirton

I’m going to rehash an argument that crops up regularly whenever crime fiction aficionados meet, but it’s one to which I’ve never yet heard a satisfactory answer. It starts with something I was writing recently. I opened a chapter like this:

He considered nailing her hands to the floor but the thought of the delirious headlines which that would generate quickly helped to banish the impulse.

There followed two paragraphs written from ‘his’ POV. Here’s another fragment to give the flavour:

He wanted her to see him, look at him, know that the hopelessness of her condition left him cold. He wondered if cutting off her eyelids would do the trick. She’d certainly have nothing to close then, no little blinds to draw down over the sight of him. But how much blood would there be? Would it cloud her vision? Well, it would clot eventually and he’d be able to sponge it away from her irises with some warm soapy water. Anyway, there was only one way to find out.

Now this was being written on the same keyboard that’s clattered out the stories of Stanley, the grumpy male fairy who lives under a cold, dripping tap in my bedroom in Aberdeen. It was definitely written by a person different from the one who interacts regularly with that fairy to try to cheer him up.

When I re-read the stuff a few days later, I wondered, for the umpteenth time, what damage it might do to a susceptible or slightly unbalanced reader and whether it was irresponsible to pander to tastes which derived pleasure from scenes of torture and sadism. I know that it’s a subject that’s been debated by the best writers, critics and psychologists, but so far none has been able to quell the visceral unease I feel at putting yet more Grand Theft Auto mayhem in the public domain.

There’s a nasty scene towards the end of Material Evidence. It’s there because I thought that’s what the public wanted and that it might help to get the book accepted. That suggests that it may be gratuitous, but it’s not; it’s necessary both for the plot and to help understand the psychology of the character involved. After reading it, a cousin of mine wrote to say that she was appalled that I could have such ideas in my head and, to judge from our contacts since, it did alter the nature of our relationship. My agent, the late and sadly missed Maggie Noach, reinforced the notion, once introducing me to a friend as ‘a nice man who has very nasty thoughts’.

In Rough Justice, there’s a rape; it’s brutal but, once more, it’s necessary. Indeed, in her review in the Sunday Telegraph, Susanna Yager wrote ‘It isn’t there to titillate, but to carry the story forward and ultimately bring about the climax to a thoughtful and thought-provoking book’. And yet, when I’m asked to give a reading, I never choose such passages. So what’s happening here? As the writer, I create the fiction; as the reader, I feel squeamish about it. I’m not tempted to use terms such as multiple personality or schizophrenia because I’d get them wrong, but it does seem that there are two different types of thinking involved.

Most people are fascinated by violence – witness the rubber-necking at accident scenes, the scrupulous recording of the intimate aspects of murders in the papers, especially when the circumstances are particularly grisly. We (if this doesn’t include you, my apologies) enjoy the frisson such stories give us, and when something nasty happens to someone we know, i.e. a character in a book with whom we’ve become familiar, the effect is that much greater. On the other hand, and simultaneously, we deplore violence and would be incapable of perpetrating such acts ourselves.

There’s no point in denying the fact that I get as much pleasure, maybe more, from writing a harrowing scene as from writing a ‘normal’ piece of narrative or from penning the miserable moanings of Stanley. And not because I’m doing what one apologist suggested, i.e. ‘stylising’ murder. I don’t remember who it was, but he/she claimed that violence in crime novels was acceptable because it was stylised rather than real. How do you stylise an axe biting into a skull? Does using the word ‘biting’ soften it through metaphor? Not in my literal mind it doesn’t.

No, the pleasure is a delight in breaking the taboos, inhabiting for a few moments the primitive segments of my psyche, setting aside the glass of Sauvignon blanc and the bons mots about the failure of the violinist to sustain the tempo in the accelerando passage of the second movement of some obscure concerto. It’s a wide-eyed amazement at what our imaginations can conceive and of the desecrations we’re capable of performing on our fellows.

And I suppose it’s an escape valve. The horror is such that it satisfies those deeper instincts and allows us to take our seats after the interval and appreciate the virtuosity the violinist brings to the pizzicato passage (or whatever the correct musical terms for all these things are – the language of savagery comes much more easily to me than that of refinement).

The problem comes when we reflect on copycat killings, on the casual use of knives by kids, on the glamour of violence itself. I’m not happy at the thought that some words of mine, dreamed up in the comfort of my study, with my view of the garden, might lodge in the mind of some unfortunate whose moral antenna are set differently and who might find the products of my primitive indulgences ‘cool’.


Jean Henry Mead said...

I can't read savagery, Bill, so I don't write it. I substitute humor and a little romance. To each his own when it comes to killing off characters. I try for originality, such as cutting a bungee jumper's cord or inventing some deliciously poisonous concoction that doesn't involve blood spattering.I admit that I'm squeamish for a mystery/suspnse writer. :)

Bill Kirton said...

Yes Jean, I much prefer to dispense with the splatter, too. Laughter's a much better ingredient.