Violence in Crime Fiction

Ben LeRoy of Tyrus Books, a publisher of noir, crime fiction, and much more, wrote a blog post that’s touched a nerve:

On the Repercussions of Crime Fiction

I agree with Ben on a lot of points. Gratuitous violence bothers me. Partly because I’ve experienced violence personally; sometimes I feel that I’ve earned the right to be silly about it, because it’s part of a healing process, but that’s arrogant of me. Anyone can write about it, but if it sounds like “virgins writing sex scenes,” to quote Andrew Vachss, your inexperience certainly shows. So do your research; if you write violence because you think it’s cool, join a fight club instead of watching Fight Club, and see if you still think so.

Here’s my response to Ben.

I write fiction that often deals with violence. I have experienced it first hand, and violence always has consequences in my fiction. Does this mean stories have a Hayes code where evil is always punished? Hell no. It means if the hero reacts with violence against someone, there will be an equal and opposite reaction. Revenge, or punishment, or personal anguish. That’s the reality of violence. “Heroes” of war refuse the title. They are disturbed by what they have done. (Not all, of course. Some are psychopaths, some are gifted with a selective empathy that lets them forgive themselves; I highly recommend Lt. Dan Grossman’s book On Killing for interviews with soldiers that explains the different mindsets.)

So when I write a violent story, it means the villain has family to mourn him or her. And that living violently means violence will be visited upon people you care about. That the hero will have problems that can’t be solved with a hard drink at the end of the day.

I do tire of reading about the emotional wreckage that violent crime strews through our lives. Police procedurals, and so on. People forced into desperate choices? Sleazy losers manipulating those around them, crushed when their castle of lies collapses? Sure, but I read plenty of lighter fiction in between.

The fact is, a murder will sell a book. Not because we’re morbid. It’s in our lizard brain, the same way animals watch when one of their kind is torn to pieces by a predator. It makes us better at avoiding the same fate.

I do think art affects us, from movies to games to books. There was a time in the ’90s when it seemed like every character in movies was an asshole, like this was more real. There are plenty of assholes out there, and plenty of violence. But there are plenty more stories to be told. I’ll take it as a challenge to write a crime novel without a violent crime. If I remember, there was little violence in Steve Hamilton’s The Lock Artist, and I enjoyed that. (Though one character has violence in his past).

Thanks for starting this conversation, Ben. It’s a good one. A while back I had to remove all swearing from a story; I wrote several afterward without it, even hardboiled ones. They were as well received as the ones I let loose in. I’ve found, as Hitchcock said, that it’s the tension people want. Not the violence. The stories I’ve written that get the strongest reaction delay the violence. It either happened before we begin (the veteran’s flashbacks in Freedom Bird) or is insinuated to occur after the story ends (The murder-suicide in We’re All Guys Here). What they both have is tension, a loaded gun ready to fire. Something for me to think about.
My current novel in progress (Bury the Hatchet) is all about the consequences of violence, mistaken intentions and motives tangling together and destroying the lives of everyone involved. We get to see the hero mete out punishment, and be on the receiving end, and never learn his lesson. Because doling out just deserts feels so good.

What are your thoughts? I enjoy movies like Shoot ‘Em Up and Crank, but I tend to prefer movies where the violence is taken a little more seriously. Hell, even Pulp Fiction teaches proper trigger discipline (Poor Marvin).

Comment here, or drop by Ben’s blog. Tyrus publishes some of the best fiction out there, from the noir of Reed Farrel Coleman to the hilarious Hello Kitty Must Die, which I’m reading now.

One thought on “Violence in Crime Fiction

  1. I think the key word here is gratuitous and that means different things to different people. I think you can have incredibly powerful and disturbing stories with little violence and have boring stories with a ton of violence. My personality is such that when I’m trying to make a point, to avoid sounding preachy, I like to exaggerate examples.

    I’m the same way with violence which is why I, like you, enjoy movies like Shoot ‘Em Up and Crank, My own writing tends toward quick violence rather than drawn out action scenes. I think authors like Duane Swierczynski and Victor Gischler and Scott Phillips do a great job of this. Same with Tarantino in film as well as guys like Robert Rodriguez.

    I do think books and movies can have an effect on people (if they don’t then we’re not doing it right) but let’s also remember one of the more famous murdered of recent years, Mark David Chapman, was inspired by Catcher in the Rye, which isn’t exactly a violence powerhouse.

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