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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What "torture porn" are you talking about? It's good that you gave some examples of things that aren't "torture porn", but what about some books that are (besides Hannibal, which is one example, but hardly enough to make a good case)? This has become a tired point that has yet to be validated.
John- I'm not going to give current examples of what I consider to be gratuitous use of violence in this light because I don't like the idea of this thread being used to trash this or that author.

However (and I pray that Jim Doherty doesn't read this) if you want an example from "classic" hardboiled/noir fiction, try KISS ME DEADLY or I, THE JURY, or any of the rest of Spillane's canon. His stuff looks tame in comparison with modern "torture porn," but the comparison is apt. Also, he came up through comic books, hence the innate cartooniness of his violence (in any real world, Mike Hammer would have been locked up in a dark, padded place by the time the events at the end of Spillane's second book took place). I think that might be another connection to some of the over-the-top aspects of modern "torture porn."

And don't get me started on Carroll John Daly's Race Williams or Three-Gun Terry.

I understand not wanting to trash authors, but there we're all adult enough and intelligent enough to know the difference between flaming and constructive criticism, aren't we?

You asked who reads "torture porn", but I don't know what you consider that to be, specifically. As far as unrealistic and over-the-top, that's kind of subjective. Granted, some things are clearly unrealistic, but everyone has a different opinion about what's gratuitous in a given situation. That's why I think a person should give examples when talking about something like this so there is a point of reference--otherwise, we could all end up talking about different things.

Also, if Spillane's work is tame by today's standards, then I doubt I would be able to put it in perspective, because I wasn't even around during the "classic" days of hardboiled/noir fiction.
Perspective is everything. And of course you can put it in perspective, if you're an informed, intelligent person with some knowledge of what you're discussing, which I assume you are, in light of the fact that you had the good taste to read and respond to my posting in the first place.
What I mean is, I was born in 1984. So what was shocking in when Spillane wrote is probably going to see tame to me, which you pointed out. Having not lived during the time when Spillane's writings were seen as shocking, it might be hard to view it as over-the-top.

Now, i guess it would work if I read a lot of stuff from that period and compared.
Of course you could. Once you'd done the research and developed a frame of reference, you absolutely could.

Historians do it all the time, some with greater success than others, but it's definitely practicable.
If I'm still with you here in the end, the two examples you've cited are not "torture porn" in your opinion. They certainly aren't in mine. Now, right off, I'm going to say with all the commentary being thrown around on the subject lately, what I have yet to see is a generally accepted definition of "torture porn" - some inferring sexual gratification into the equation, others staying strictly to the overuse of violence for violence's sake. Frankly, in the past few days it's been bandied about (not talking about you raising this valid topic, Brian!) in such varying fashion it has about as much meaning as the term noir, which has been subject to interpretation for some time now. After extensive reading and discussion on the issue (with such people as Al Guthrie) I've come to the conclusion the manner I've typically heard noir used in is incorrect, and the term is so overused in that regard that it's almost meaningless.

I'm one of those people that considers every element of the story for its purpose. If there's sex, it must connect to the story and advance the plot or reveal something significant about the character (and I'm talking about more than their birthday suit - something actually about the person). Some with violence. I'm not going to say I felt comfortable reading Hard Man - that wouldn't be the right word. But I didn't take issue with the violence within the story. It was a way of revealing character.

I have far more difficulty with the...thrillerish stories where someone's shot three times, beaten down half a dozen times, has functioned without sleep for 18 hours and yet is still going strong and on their own will kill ten men with their bare hands to rescue woman/child/money/whatever. There's certainly such a thing as adrenaline, but it only carries you so far.

As for understanding why people enjoy it... Why do people enjoy wrestling? Boxing? Why do people stop on a street to watch a fight?

I suppose there may be some authors who mistake violence for action and use it in the laziest manner, to build the suspense, because they don't know how else to do it. When it comes to my taste as a reader, I have a threshold. If I think the violence is gratuitous, I'm done. Same with the sex.
I think "torture porn" is a buzz word, nothing more.
For that matter, so is the phrase "buzz word," John.

I didn't coin this phrase, I borrowed it from something I read by Kevin Burton Smith. If you don't like it, don't use it, but the lion's share of the post was on a specific subject, not on an empty phrase.

I'd love to get a reaction to the meat of what I wrote, rather than the toppings.
I didn't say you coined it. And a buzz word is a fashionable term that has an unclear meaning, not an empty phrase. I called it a buzz word in agreement with Sandra's post about the varying meanings of it she's come across. So the meaning of "torture porn" is unlclear, and at the moment, it is fashionable. Hence, it is a buzz word. "Buzz word" is not a buzz word because it's meaning is clear.

My reaction to the meat of what you wrote is the first post I made.
How is the meaning of the two words "torture" and "porn" unclear? Obviously, it's an allusion to those works where violence acts as an ancillary to, or even perhaps a substitute for, sex. So instead of having DEBBIE DOES DALLAS, you've got THE CHAINSAW DOES DEBBIE.
It's unclear because we're not talking about the two words separately, we're talking about them together. And used together it is a term which has not been sufficiently defined. See, now you've defined it by saying it is when violence is ancillary to or a substitute for sex. That's a definition. That's the only clear definition I've seen given. I've been taken it to be a stand-in for gratuitous violence.

Now for it to be really clear it would be nice to have an example of some books which fit this definition, because judging it would be very subjective. I would also like to know how violence substitutes sex, what is meant by that.


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