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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First off I think a lot of the stuff that gets called noir these days isn't. Nuff said.

As for violence, well, I love dark, noir, twisted, warped books. Some of those have scenes in that make me cringe - but not because the slicing of an eyeball is described in gory and gratuitous detail, but because the violence and menace is there under the surface and implied. Simon Kernick wrote a chapter from a particular POV in one of his books that was really really horrible, but it FITTED. It wasn't gratuitous, it was perfect for the book. And, you know what, when I actually went back and re-read the scene it was actually LESS gory than my mind had assumed. My mind had filled in some of the blanks he had left. He didn't have to go into great detail, just give me a hint of the violence and my mind worked out the rest. And Brian, you mention Al Guthrie and Ken Bruen - for me theore definitely not gratuitously violent either - any violence in their books feels absolutely perfectly right.

Brian - I know there's an author we disagree on in terms of violence - you think his violence is cartoonish, I feel it fits in with the nature of the book and I don't feel that violence is over the top, because the whole book is over the top. So often I don't have any problems with what you have under A) and B). It's C) and D) I have problems with.

The violence I don't like is the serial killer type where the dismemberment feels almost lovingly described, or where the killer cuts out the liver of his victim and inserts a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica while reciting nursery rhymes backwards. I can't read a lot of those books, and if I do they have to have something else about them rather than 'let's chase a serial killer'. I wouldn't call them 'torture porn', but they're just not for me. They're also not noir, incidentally.

I don't like books where authors throw in gratuitous ANYTHING because they want to raise an emotion in their readers. That just feels out of place. I prefer it when it arises from the telling of the tale. If it fits, by all means include it. If it doesn't, then it sticks out like a sore thumb that's been hit 20,000 times with a hammer, trodden on by a herd of stampeding wildebeeste and had matchsticks inserted under the nails. It could be gratuitous anything - sex, violence, knitting patterns, linguistics, explanations of the workings of a camshaft, or the life history of the red-kneed pop-eyed patagonian spider. If it doesn't feel right it's gratuitous. To me, anyway.
When I first wrote my response I didn't include any books I DIDN'T enjoy the violence in, so I'm going to name some likes AND dislikes on the violence front:

Likes: Al Guthrie, Ken Bruen, Duane Swierczynski, Jason Starr, Simon Kernick, Anthony Neil Smith, Ray Banks - some of those use implied violence, some more overt, some REALLY overt

Dislikes: Boris Starling, Mo Hayder, J A Konrath, Ed O'Connor (The Yeare's Midnight), Karin Slaughter - nothing wrong with them, they're just not my taste and are examples of what I don't much care for in violence. Oh, and by the way NONE of these are what I would consider torture porn, or gratuitous and I'm not trashing them, just stating my taste. Some of them - Karin Slaughter for example - I thought some of the writing was excellent and if some of them came out with another type of book I would no doubt pick it up.
The post by Kevin Burton Smith can be found over at The Rap Sheet along with many comments.

I'll name names for what I consider books that use titillating violence in ways that are a) not realistic and b) annoying to me. I don't think this is what you're referring to, Brian, because it's nothing new. It's just your standard-issue fem jep with torture stuff, and there's a lot of it around by people like Lisa Gardner, Cody McFayden, Blake Crouch, James Patterson (I think, though I've never made it more than two or three paragraphs into any of his books) and a host of others whose names I can't recall but who left dents in my walls when I was sent arcs to review.

Some of them are talented writers. A lot of people enjoy these stories because they are suspenseful and the sexual violence contributes to the rush. I'm talking about books that focus on men whose gig is to pursue and torture women in variously outrageous ways (getting off on it sexually, of course) while being tremendously clever in eluding police and - oh yes, they're fiendishly mad, mad I say! And usually their mother is largely to blame. As in porn, things are larger than life and the storyline is both predictable and geared to provoking excitement but don't worry about being realistic. They are entertainment. Not that there's anything wrong with that, It's just a kind that bugs me.

Here's another name: I personally found the first Karin Slaughter novel to be talented but (I'm afraid this is likely to be a spoiler so BE FOREWARNED)
I warned you!
Turn back you fools!!
I couldn't buy into the idea that a woman could be impaled to the floor among other violent assaults that would lead to a lot of bleeding and pain and whatnot - and be physically capable of orgasm. It seemed like a porn script to me. "No means ... well, okay, you shouldn't do this and it's terrible and I will feel very very bad about it, but watch while I get off on it." I have had lots of people tell me I'm totally wrong in the way I read that scene and it was brave of her to address the trauma of a woman's body betraying herself - but the scene seemed outrageously unrealistic to me and too much like violent porn.

Okay - now you can all beat me up, but I will NOT enjoy it :o) I will think of England.

The other thing about this meta-narrative (crazy men torturing women) that makes me angry is that so often the easy way out to explain these "monsters" is that they are insane. I know a lot of people with major mental illness, and they are no more evil than anyone else, but they sure put up with a lot of shit.
This is a good example of how subjective this whole thing is. For others the violence fit and was good, but for you it was over-the-top and unrealistic. That's why examples are so helpful, so we can see what it is you are having a reaction to.

And you named the book and talked about it, and it wasn't offensive. You weren't mean to anyone. So see everyone, you can back up your claims and still be polite about it.
Thanks for not being offended. I didn't actually find any of these books over the top so much as that I hate the whole "crazy men stalk and torture women, I can't wait for the next installment" thing.

And you're right, it's very much a matter of what you are looking for in crime fiction - and what you don't want to see. My first book involves child victims, and that by itself is something that a lot of readers want nothing to do with. But it's also about what it is in people that makes them get off on and tell themselves (often completely wrong) stories about evil behavior and what it means. So this whole issue interests me very much.
I think that's what it is for me Barbara - it's the focus that makes it swing one way or the other for me. For example, if you take two books that have police characters and serial killers in, and are about the hunt for the killer, I would describe Boris Starling's MESSIAH as a gory serial killer book, whereas I would describe, say, a couple of Mark Billinghams as a police procedural that just happen to have a serial killer in. The focus is on the investigation, the characters, the effects of the crimes rather than the methods of killing and torture.
There's a lot of "torture porn" out there. I don't think it's possible to come up with a true definition, any more than it's possible to define "pulp." In both cases, though, the connotation is a negative one, implying literature that is meant to shock and entertain and then be thrown away. Some people like it, some don't. To me, character motivation is the key, along with realism relative to the story world the author has built.
So where do we draw the line? Is Marathon Man torture porn? Silence of the Lambs? I think the term is too subjective to come up with a concise definition. Or is it one of those cases where, "I know it when I see it?"
That's true of any genre classification, isn't it? I mean technically, any story or novel with a crime in it could be called crime fiction, right?
Personally, I've always been a big fan of the theory that less is more. The popularity of gore films (I refuse to call them horror) is a perfect example. To me, a true horror film is one that lets create at least part of the scare in your own mind. Rob Zombie and all his compatriots, brilliant as they must be, simply strive to gross and shock people. That's not what I'm looking for when I want to be scared.

It's the same when I'm reading. I'm not looking for an author to make me gasp or wish I hadn't eaten before I started reading. I'm a fairly imaginative person, give me a slightly detailed outline and I can probably fill in the rest. Give me a little credit as a reader (or a viewer), I am capable of that much.
Everybody is really gentle with those authors. Why? In case, it is simply inspired writing that mere earthlings cannot understand? Or blaming it on a muse who has had a mental breakdown after centuries of overwork? Or admitting that we cannot possibly grasp the creative urge that produces books but must honor it at all costs?

Is it at all conceivable that some of these men and women decided that this stuff sells and proceeded to outdo the latest best seller? Because you must outdo it, of course, and so the violence always becomes more graphic, more detailed, more eccentric, and ultimately less realistic. (Actually, that's probably easier to do than to come up with a new sex scene).

We should wonder about the reading public and the power it has over the books that are written.
So okay. I'm probably that mysterious gal on the historical list touting her "medieval noir". And I've been in many discussions about this, that is, the definition of noir vs. hard-boiled. I suppose I tend to use them rather interchangeably, and for those purists, that is incorrect. I look at it as "bleak, desolate, gloomy, fatalistic in character, urban, morally ambiguous, anti-heroic." (from the OED). But as per our ever-transforming English language, with the passage of time and usage, definitions do change, expand, encompass. I don't think we should be afraid of that or of such unfamiliar territory as "medieval noir". Did I write my "medieval noir" to catch a passing fad? No such luck. Is it "cartoony"? Absolutely not! I wrote what I wanted to write and how I wanted to write it and perhaps I'm lucky enough to have slipped aboard a fast-moving train. Do I apologize for it? No way. My medieval mystery is noir with a smattering of hard-boiled. In a year, you can read it for yourself and see.


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