I've been ruminating lately on something I once heard about the inimitable Dashiell Hammett, and how his 1929 novel THE MALTESE FALCON "took murder out of the drawing room and dumped it in the alley where it belonged." The upshot of this statement for me was that it took the Agatha Christie/Dorothy L. Sayers approach to crime and set it on its ear, because Hammett, who had actually been a Pinkerton detective and had some experience with both criminals and solving the crimes they committed, insisted on writing crime fiction that was "realistic."

This position opposed the then-fashionable literary conceit (employed by Christie, Sayers, and countless others) of having one's master detective gather all of the suspects together at the scene of the crime, then spending pages upon pages scrolling through the ebb and flow of the investigation (and of course demostrating the astonishing brilliance which made said "master detective" the "master.") before coming around to the twist ending, wherein an unlikely suspect was unmasked, to the collective astonishment of those gathered (and the collective delight of many a reader). Enjoyable? Surely, especially for younger readers just experiencing the genre for the first time (although I can re-read MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS over and over again, I can't be twelve and reading it over the summer between my 7th and 8th grade years), and for readers who relish what some would call the more "cozy" end of the crime fiction spectrum. But "realistic"? No, not realistic at all.

In the years since Hammett flourished we've seen the rise and demise and rise and demise and rise again of the hard-boiled/"noir" school of writing, much of which traces its collective roots back through a series of immortal writers like John D. MacDonald, Sara Paretsky, Ross MacDonald, Geoffrey Holmes, Leigh Brackett, Dan J. Marlowe, Mickey Spillane, Chester Himes, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Walter Moseley, Robert B. Parker, Dorothy Hughes, Cornell Woolrich, and of course, Raymond Chandler, to such innovators as Hammett and contemporaries like James M. Cain and Carroll John Daly (note: I did not say "good writers," I said "contemporaries," and while I find Daly's stuff completely unreadable, he was a contemporary of Hammett's).

And "noir" these days is hot-hot-hot. How do I know this? Aside from looking at the sales that "noir" titles are generating, look at the attempts of many new authors to categorize themselves as "noir." I recently read the BSP of a very nice lady on one of the historical mystery lists which I frequent touting the pending release of her "medieval noir," and the announcement by another that her ancient Roman physician/detective would be walking the mean (and I'm assuming un-paved) streets of 1st century AD Londinium.

Are these efforts "noir" writing? No clue until/unless I read them, but they do serve as examples that buttress my point that there are writers out there attempting to cash in by branding thier work as "(insert appropriate hyphenated word here) noir."

Since noir writing is so hot right now, can there be any wonder that there has been bleed in from so many other sub-genres? Of course not. However, I think that noir writing might be a victim of its own success, in that the writing of some newcomers (relatively speaking) is blurring the line between noir and what I would have categorized as horror fiction. The irony (and with noir, irony ought to be busting out all over anyway) is that some of these new trends which I find somewhat troubling are, in my opinion, taking "noir fiction" out of the realist school in which it has existed side-by-side and cheek-by-jowl with hardboiled writing for decades.

Why? Simple: the fetishization of violence.

I did not read Thomas Harris' HANNIBAL, but did hear about the portion of it wherein Hannibal cooked up part of the brain of one of his victims and fed it to him while the man was drugged. Sue me, but I didn't want to read the grim details of that. And in that sentiment, I don't seem to have a lot of company among noir/hardboiled afficionados. For me, stuff like this, and like what one will see in such horror movie franchises as SAW and HOSTEL is nothing more than what our own Kevin Burton Smith refers to as "Torture Porn."

I guess what I'm saying is that I'm reading a lot of new stuff coming out of the gate these days and the violence in it is:

A) Cartoony.

B) Utterly impossible, to say nothing of improbable.

C) Irrelevant to the action/plot of the work in question.

D) Gratuitous, in that it does nothing to set up the character/action in the book.

Now, I have nothing against violence in literature, and I'm no one's idea of a moral censor, but I can't help but wonder 'What the hell's the point?" If it doesn't advance the plot, or give us insight into the characters, it's dead air. For me, anything that takes me out of the scene is that much more likely to make me not only stop readiing that book, but to also forego reading the work of the author of said book again. For me this is true of any variety of excess: dialogue that's chatty and tells you all about the type of shoes the character wears but doesn't tell you anything else, and so on, in addition to this fetishistic, gratuitous "titillating" violence.

I know that it is frequently a delicate balance, deciding how much and which variety of violence to add to one's story in support of the plot. I recall one of Ken Bruen's books, THE KILLING OF THE TINKERS, displaying the after-effects of a man having all of his teeth knocked out of his head. I had no problem with this example, because it fit into the ebb and flow of the plot, and there was no loving, extensive discussion of the teeth flying out, the blood flying, the screams, etc. All that aside, as I said, it *fit*, and was all the more effective for how Ken (disclaimer, like many here, I am not only an ardent admirer of Bruen's work, I consider him a friend) described it after the fact.

Edgar award nominee Al Guthrie is another author known for violence in his work who also strikes me as someone who only gives us violence with a point (my disclaimer about Ken also goes for Al). In his latest, HARD MAN, Al has two big fight scenes with punishing results within the first ten pages (and I won't even get in to what happens to the dog), but they help set the tone, they reveal a lot about the collective character of the participants in each dust-up, and they're not cartoony. In other words, people get the crap kicked out of them and it shows afterward, rather than enduring punishment that would have likely killed them and actually walking around afterward.

This leads me to my last point. I can't help but wonder (as some people have with other forms of "pornography") who it is that reads this so-called "torture porn" and enjoys it?

After all, we know why people enjoy sex scenes. Why do some others view violence in the same light?

Just a few thoughts.

Your Mileage May Vary-


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Perhaps it can be used as both. I meant it as the former, even though my original post dealt with both "torture porn" and "gratuitous violence."

In fact, the intended main point of my original post was that hardboiled/noir was originally an outgrowth of the Twain/Crane "realist" school, and now it's in danger of becoming, in its own way, as absolutely fantastic (in the original connotation of the word) as the drawing room mysteries to which it was in many ways a negative reaction in the first place. I find that ironic, and not in a noirish manner, either.
I see, similar to Chandler's essay "The Simple Art of Murder", right? I caught that towards the beginning, but by the end of your post you were talking about gratuitous and/or extreme, cartoon-like violence, and for me anyway, the main point was unclear.
Well, I'm leaning with John here. The questions asked were:

... who it is that reads this so-called "torture porn" and enjoys it?

After all, we know why people enjoy sex scenes. Why do some others view violence in the same light?

Since I've now seen this torture-porn phrase bashed around by no less than two dozen different sources over the past few days (from newspapers to blogs to forums to lists to emails) I couldn't tell you who reads the torture-porn because I completely disagree with some of the recent applications I've seen the term used for, but since the term remains ambiguous any assessment of reasoning hinges on the definition of the term and what it does and does not apply to.

I guess if those questions aren't what you want to talk about you might have to phrase a new one that goes to the root. What I'm feeling uncomfortable about with this is that from KBS's original post on it, it seemed he had specific books in mind. I feel like I'm at risk of making comments people take as being about certain undisclosed works when I may not have even read them. I can theorize, but if I'm going to theorize I need a definition with a bit more to it if I'm being asked who reads torture porn and why.

Probably best to bow out there.
OK since I'm not interested in naming authorial names here any more than KBS was/is, how about I name movies? THE DEVIL'S REJECTS? SAW I, II and/or III? HOSTEL I or HOSTEL II?

"But wait!" you say. "Those are all horror movies, not noir!"

Exactly my point.
Where was it that Kevin Burton Smith used the term "torture porn"? Was it something a while ago, or recent, because I can't find it?
Here's a link:


I originally read it in the Rara Avis email list.
Thanks for clarifying. I wasn't being sarcastic, I really was curious. I've read that post and Kevin never uses the term "torture porn". He says at the end that:

"All the meanness and carnage of these soulless wallows comes off more like pornography than noir, at least to me."

That's the closest he gets to "torture porn", but he never uses that term.
He used it in a follow-up post to the Rara Avis list.
If you can quote it, that would be good, because I didn't see it on that list either.
Oops, my mistake. It was in a follow-up post, but in private correspondence with me, not on the list. And no, I won't quote that.

Jesus, how reductive can a thread get?
We've reached the limits apparently, because I'm having to reply to myself.

Anyway, fair enough. I just wasn't seeing it.
I like the term. In both aspects Sandra mentions. And I'm pretty much with Brian on this and on the noir business.
Strangely, the divine Sarah once called one of my novels "Heian Noir" but I think that was tongue-in-cheek. I use sex and violence, but both my protagonist and the villains are sane enough not to cook brains and feed them to their victims, whatever other shortcomings they may have as human beings. I try not to write to the latest fad, but I do believe in realism in a novel -- especially in a crime novel..
And I like Bruen, too. But I prefer his Irish novels to the more sensational (noir?) books he's written.


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