Hello everyone. I'm brand new to this site/forum, although I've been a reader of crime fiction for decades. To be perfectly honest, I need to vent about something, and here is a place where I can address readers, writers, AND editors.  At the risk of sounding like a crank I really have to talk about this, because it bothers me a LOT. And I think it's important.

 Over the past few months, in no less than 3 of the murder mysteries I have read, I have come across extremely disturbing (though fictional of course) murder/mutilation of animals---in this case, cats.  It's presented as a gory  aftermath---introduce cat, then later, cat turns up dead, mutilated---as a threat/warning  to protagonist. Can't we think of something else?
The novels in question: Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,  Jennifer McMahon's Promise Not to Tell, and Barry Maitland's Dark Mirror, which I'm currently reading.

No doubt the writers (the ones still living, anyway)  would justify these kitty death/mutilation  (cats are the most popular victims, apparently, because I guess maybe  writers  assume it's  easy to get hold of a friendly cat and slit its throat  without having your face clawed off).    as necessary to the plot---to show what sort of  hideous  character we're dealing with here.  And then they would say, BUT IT"S FICTION!  There's human murder, shouldn't that upset you more?   But, we EXPECT that, don't we, when we read a murder mystery! 
 ( Oh, now I also remember--- P.D. James had her murderer try to hang a cat in The Murder Room, but happily, the cat was rescued in the nick of time, so I had to forgive her for that one.  )
 For this reader, it's like being blind sided. We can't know this is coming, can we, when we pick up a promising new mystery?  Maybe there  should be a warning on the cover, a sad kitty face or something, because no matter how good the book---this kind of incident pretty much ruins it for me.  
 I read mysteries  for the puzzle, the suspense, and, ultimately, the cleverness of the solution.  And for the quality of the writing, too, as it happens--- NOT for the  grisly  and gratuitous details.
  I don't just blame the writers---I would also like to whisper a word of advice to the EDITORS.  Do you really think readers are going to enjoy being introduced to a sweet, friendly cat only to find it dismembered some pages later?  (I should probably put the book down as soon as a cat appears).  Come on now ---is this gratuitous killing/ mutilation REALLY necessary to "prove a point?"  Yes, animal cruelty is a fact of life. I try very hard NOT to read about it any more than I have to.  I deplore it. It's why I've rescued so many stray cats myself. 
  Is this getting to be a trend in contemporary crime fiction, or was it just LUCK OF THE DRAW for me?   I've been reading mysteries for years, but it's only now , it seems, that I'm encountering this "other"  kind of violence as a plot device.
 Recently, a friend of mine, also a cat owner/lover, asked if I could recommend "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo."  I had to tell her: Yes, BUT...  and when I told her, she decided she was  probably NOT going to read it.
And Barry Maitland, who has become one of my favorite crime fiction authors, had to go and ruin it for me too. (Of course I'm going to finish reading the book,  but I feel as though I've been smacked in the head  with a fly  ball in this one, and I'm not happy about it).   The "fictional"  cat in question was a  little ginger tabby---exactly like the one I happen to own, I might add.   If you've read this book, you'll know what I'm talking about; if not, BEWARE. It's horrible.
  SO:  Does anyone else find this disturbing?  If I hadn't encountered this new phenomenon three times recently, I might have ignored it.  Writers, editors---we don't NEED this!  It's disgusting, and it really does take from the pleasure of reading an otherwise excellent and suspenseful crime novel.

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Agreed. Violence to pets is an ugly cliche'. Had enough since Glenn Close did Michael Douglas's cat in 1987. FATAL ATTRACTION.
Actually, I seem to remember that was a pet rabbit that got boiled. Same difference. We already knew the Glenn Close character was a sicko---but we HAD to kill a poor little bunny for the sake of sensationalism. Yes, it is a very ugly cliche, and the problem is, even intelligent writers are resorting to it. In spite of the fact that NUMEROUS readers are animal lovers and pet owners. It's just crass emotional manipulation.
So maybe this does raise an interesting moral and ethical issue---where do you draw the line, if you are writing about murder---and murderers.
Murder itself is horrible in every way---what it does to the victims and the families of the victims, and we should never become inured to it. Most readers of crime fiction are law-abiding types who deplore killing and want order and justice, so we aren't really reading for the sick details, although with the advent of the forensic mystery, we tend to get quite a bit of that, too. Psychology interests me the most.
But cruelty to animals really hits a nerve. If I know in advance there is something like this in a particular book or a film, I will boycott it! I want to put the word out to writers and editors. If I could have contacted Barry Maitland myself, I think I would have done it! But once the book is in print---it's too late. All I can do is warn my friends!
If it moves the story, as with any violence in writing, I don't see a problem with it.

If it's only there for gore's sake, then, as with any violence in writing, it's not necessary and a sign the author is gunning for a cheap shock factor.

These types of descriptions can add context to a character, most often in serial killer novels (i.e. the killer tortures animals when he's young).
"add context to a character, most often in serial killer novels (i.e. the killer tortures animals when he's young)."

Yes, that's the standard defense. I realize that. I expected someone would respond with that. That IS why most authors do it. But we all know this by now, don't we? Many serial killers torture animals before moving on to humans. Do we have to be constantly reminded? Thing is, for me, it doesn't really move the story along. It really doesn't add to the suspense, it creates another kind of anxiety altogether. There are many devices a skilled writer can use to create suspense and reveal character.
IMHO, the stories in question could all have moved along quite well without these incidents. I see the role the murdered cat played in "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo." I don't know how this was handled in the film, if it was, but I've already decided NOT to watch that movie. Writers seem to be able to get away with a lot worse than movie makers---even though the gore is still visual. Words can create powerful images.
It is the author's choice, and the editor's. In "Promise Not To Tell," the murderer kills the progronist's mother's cat in order to frame the protagonist, somehow; but pages and pages are wasted in a nerve-wracked seach for the cat, that has gone missing. And in the end, it's still not clear WHY this really had to happen.
For the most part, I think most people still read murder mysteries for ENTERTAINMENT. Some people even like a bit of comic relief thrown---personally I don't care for it. I'm pretty hard core. Murder isn't funny under any circumstances. But, as I said earlier, I draw the line at using cruelty to animals to make a point, even if it's supposed to add something to the character. The way the mutilated cat was described in Barry Maitland "Dark Mirror" was about a gratuitous as it gets---and remember, I LIKE this writer! Or thought I did. I'm just disappointed in his tactics in this one.
Am I wrong in thinking that the most famous incidence of fictional pet-killing was the horse's head in The Godfather? I think as a dramatic device it's a trick that can work reasonably well--you're showing the potential for escalation, so it's part of the rising action of the story. It's a little bit silly to complain that it's a cliche, maybe, when so much of what we do in genre is based in cliche. And I do think there's something odd about a culture that invents a popular literary genre that's about murdering people, but then recoils when fictional kitties are injured.
Am I wrong in thinking that the most famous incidence of fictional pet-killing was the horse's head in The Godfather?
No Jon, you are not wrong. And I'll admit, that horrendous as that was --- it was very effective indeed in showing just how far that criminal element was willing to go to achieve its own ends. How they accomplished it, we did not see. But the point was made. These people can and will do ANYTHING. The Godfather" was a GREAT film. I've seen it many times. The horse head wasn't a cliche then, but a cliche is whatever gets over-used. Once Coppola used that metaphor, who else dared to?
Yet, in fact, there was a strong resemblance to that very horse head incident in Maitland's book. The head of the mutilated kitty ends up on DI Kolla's pillow. OK-- it was a "fictional kitty." But an image I would rather not have had to see in my mind's eye, because I was NOT expecting it from this writer.
And you are also right to note that the mystery genre IS filled with cliches--- there's nothing completely new, really, and writers have to keep stretching themselves to come up with innovative endings---but I don't think it's "silly" to object to what appears to be a new trend, or to what is essentially gratuitous violence, or descriptions of mutilations--animal OR human. I already made that point myself in my original post---that there's probably a contradiction here. Why ARE we reading mysteries in the first place? For that matter, just to be sure I'm not totally misunderstood---I don't approve of murdering PEOPLE either! But that's what murder mysteries are ABOUT. In fact, I finally gave up reading Patricia Cornwell --whose early novels were chillingly suspenseful---because the violence in her novels--perpetrated on human beings, of course- got more and more grisly and outrageous. I assume serious murder writers do a good bit of research, and know something about the sort of things that are done to victims, but I just had too much of it. I want to know WHY as much as HOW.
If you want to critique the culture, it's gonna take a lot more space than we've got here! :)
Anyway, we ARE here to talk about what we like and don't like in crime fiction, and it's just something I needed to get off my chest. We all know that one of the oddities, as you put it, about our culture IS that people often get more upset about cruelty to animals than the deaths of humans, yet the animals we regularly eat for dinner are killed also, en masse, routinely and often brutally. (BTW, I'm not a vegetarian, but I am a proponent of humanely raised livestock--local, grass fed, etc.)

Murder mysteries are not read as documentaries. So, taking ALL these contradictions into consideration, MUST we also kill the fictional kitties and doggies just to make a point?
Caroline--I think you raise a valid point, but I'm pretty much of the scorched-earth, whatever-it-takes school of storytelling. Genre is where I go, as a writer and as a reader, to let my inner psychopath out for a run. So, would I kill kitties in a book if it made for a compelling story element? You betcha--by the truckload. Do I like kitties? I do, indeed. Puppies, too. And children. All delicious when properly prepared. (Kidding.) Here's a thought: if there is, indeed, an increase in kitty mutilation in crime fiction, could it be a subconscious response to all those cat mysteries? If that's what's going on, I have to say I'm completely in favor.
So, would I kill kitties in a book if it made for a compelling story element? You betcha--by the truckload.

Well, maybe you'd better warn me if you decide to do that, 'cause I'll skip THAT book! You're the writer, you make your choices. I'm the reader, though, and I make mine. I'm just trying to imagine a story in which killing a truckload of critters would make a compelling story element. You are expressing a THEORY. Of course, in Elizabeth George's "Playing for the Ashes," there are two protagonists who are animal rights activists, "terrorists" I seem to recall, destroying labs in which experiments are done on cats and dogs... so there's a case in which your theory does hold up.
Well, if I ever get around to writing the fifth book in my series, it'll probably be HUNTING SEASON, which will start with the annual Cape Cod pheasant hunt. Pheasants are no longer indigenous to the Cape, so the Fish and Game guys actually have to truck them in so the hunters can blast them--why they go to the trouble is a great mystery, except that there are powerful interests who want to perpetuate the whole thing. So, literally truckloads of these lost, docile pheasants wandering around, looking for places to hide, while these yahoos with expensive over-unders and pure-bred bird dogs blow them to smithereens. Sport! So, there's your scenario. It ain't kitties, but it's the best I can do.
Having read HIGH SEASON, I think the circumstances surrounding the pheasant hunt are right in your wheelhouse.
I know, right? It's wonderfully ridiculous, but lends itself to a Dick Cheney-style face shooting.

I shouldn't have said that, probably--now that lady from Texas is probably going to show up and tell me how vicious I am for saying mean things about Dick Cheney.
Wow. I forgot all about the face shooting possibilities. I was thinking more along the lines of a truck carrying the pheasants crashing and they escaped, but not where the hunting was to take place, so they had to be captured and transported to where they could be legally shot. Not suggesting that, of course; your imagination is much better than mine. Just thinking how much fun you could have weaving that story in with the cast of characters you have in P'town.


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