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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Jeri- first off, from one writer of historicals to another, congratulations on the book contract. Secondly, I can't wait to read it!
Personally, I get and appreciate noir (even though I’m still a little fuzzy on the exact definition thereof). I’ve read and loved books by Bruen and Starr and Guthrie and Swierczynski and Gishler (perhaps on the more cartoonish side of the spectrum?) and so forth. My wife just can’t get into them. She’d far rather read mainstream thrillers than the aforementioned and I see no problem with that. I read mainstream too. Probably more than the noir stuff. So what if it’s not realistic? For many people, realism is best left to reality. Entertainment is another beast completely. Entertainment doesn’t need to be realistic to entertain. Entertainment can be mindless. Hell, many people actively seek this out. And what exactly is realism? How many fiction writers actually know the realities of killing someone? How many have even thrown a fist in anger? Isn’t it all made-up? And isn’t that the opposite of real? Isn’t the so-called realism of the noir sub-genre more a patina of realism, a researched interpretation of someone else’s realism at best? And isn’t realism overrated? When you get right down to it, as an example, Jack Reacher is an unrealistic character. He’s hugely invincible, he gets beaten down but always comes back kicking ass harder. And I’m right there cheering him on. I don’t care if he’s unrealistic. I love the character and will buy every Child book as soon as it’s released. And it seems the reader majority are in accord, which is why Lee Child features so prominently in the bestseller lists.

Which brings me to the comment that noir is such a hot sub-genre now. Well, is it? Sure, there’s been an increase of published noir novels, but how many of these reach a wider reading public? Isn’t it safe to say that most authors of this sub-genre are firmly in the mid-list? Which there’s absolutely nothing wrong with – hell I’d happily fill that slot. But I’d suggest very few of these authors feature in bestseller lists because the general public prefers “entertainment” over realism (which is why tent pole movies like Pirates of the Caribbean or Die Hard continue to be big box office earners, and why shows such as 24 or Prison Break attract such large viewer bases). And in the end, is writing fiction not about reaching as wide an audience as possible? Because isn’t that why (the majority) of writers write? And isn’t that what the authors of this so-called “torture porn” are trying to do? Or does that raise the ugly spectre of art versus commercialism, an entirely different debate?
I don't think objective of writing fiction is to reach a larger audience. For me, that is. But I agree that it doesn't have to be realistic. I prefer more realism, most of the time, which is why I don't read much genre fiction. I feel that literary fiction, on the whole, has more realistic characters who have more realistic emotional responses to a given situation, and so I like literary fiction best. But that's just me. There's plenty of people who don't care about realism at all. It would be pretty boring if books were all the same and everyone liked the same things.

Some interesting points, however, as I understand them in their context as literary terms, "realism," and "realistic" do not necessarily equate to "real." However, for clarity's sake, let me take a slightly different tack.

I like escapist fiction quite a lot (otherwise I'd be reading stuff like John Cheever's work). Where it sometimes falls down for me is when it strains the bonds of credulity. In other words, I'm ready to go just about anywhere with the writer as long as they can sell their story to me.

I'll further state that this sort of thing is largely a visceral response on my part: I read a scene and react, thinking, "Ahhhhh that would *never* happen." And when that happens, it takes me out of the scene, out of the book, and so on.

That's what I'm talking about when I mention "realism." I know it's fiction, but if you can make me believe it, or at least that it's possible, then I'll probably finish it.

Take Jess Walter's CITIZEN VINCE, a terrific book with an ending that, had you told me what it would be before I read all the way through the novel to get to it, I would have likely thought utterly incredible (in the original sense of the word). BUT I read the book, and Walter made me believe it as I was reading it.

How? He wrote the hell out of that book. I mean it. Talk about a deserving Edgar win.

Years ago I read a Michael Connelly book (CITY OF BONES) with a plot twist in the middle of it that I thought was just absolutely bunk, that I thought he didn't set up well, that when he tried to pull it off, I went, "Ahhh that would never happen." I did finish the book, but with some difficulty. This is no slam on Connelly. I just didn't buy what he was selling in that case (and for the record, I enjoyed his new book THE OVERLOOK more than I've enjoyed anything else of his that I've ever read. Nice, quick read, action, good pacing, believable characters, good dialogue, really enjoyable).

So your points are well taken, but everyone has that little, unsquelchable voice inside them that will occasionally go, "Ahhhh that would never happen!" and it's tough not to just listen to it, at least it is for me.

Lastly, really my main point of the original post in this thread is that I find it ironic that hb/noir writing, which was born out of an impulse to take murder out of the drawing room and into the alley, where it belonged, seemed to be currently trending toward action/violence so over-the-top that it had the perhaps intentional, perhaps unintentional effect of making the work product of said authors just as unbelievable as having a little Belgian sleuth with his little grey cells gather a list of likely suspects in the drawing room of that remote English mansion somewhere near the moors/seaside/hill country.
Yes, indeed.
But I think that an earlier comment about realism (or verisimilitude) being more common in literary fiction is interesting. It should be the other way around, but as you say, Brian, some genre fiction authors may take their subject so far over the top that it becomes unreal. That has nothing to do with fantasy fiction or the supernatural, or science fiction. These simply operate under their own rules of believability. Crime fiction should be based on stories that could happen (or could have happened) and on motivations that are believable.
Why should it be the other way around? Is there something intrinsic to the nature of genre fiction that automatically makes it more realistic than literary fiction?
Crime fiction needs the realism. Literary fiction frequently relies on poetic language, the exploration of theme, the delving into the subconscious.

I hear you about real versus realistic versus realism. And I agree totally about that inner critic that causes books to be flung across the room. But as John said, to each their own. One person’s howling book-toss inspiration is another person’s cooooool moment. Because I have a legal background, I have to turn off my inner critic whenever I read/watch a law drama. Otherwise I’d be hurling books across the room or remotes at the TV at very regular intervals. So it is with “unrealistic” violence – I guess it just depends on how demanding your inner critic is.

As to whether violence has become fetishized, I think commonplace is a better adjective. I’d argue that “American Psycho” was the ultimate fetishization of violence (purposely so) and that was written, what, fifteen years ago? As widely criticised as praised, it is generally considered a work of literary importance. Should the fact that similar (and I’d argue generally less graphic) violence has become more commonplace in genre fiction render it "torture porn"? Sure there are some splatter flicks that go over the top – but over the top by whose standards? For me, maybe. For a Rob Zombie fan, maybe not. And to not have the splatter in splatter flicks would change their very nature. Like John points out, look at the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Genres evolve and go through popularity peaks and dips. A few years back, it was really difficult to get anyone to read a horror script. Then “Saw” happened and suddenly every prodco in town was screeching for the horror, the horror.

There’ll always be a case of some people being pulled out of a story by certain events. For some it’ll be the contrived situation of a moustache-twirling Belgian sleuth gathering the likely suspects together to point out the baddy, to others it’ll be the lack of realism (in the fictional sense) of the violence portrayed. But I don’t believe that stylized, graphic violence necessarily makes it fetishized, particularly not if the character is well-enough drawn to justify it.


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