Getting Re-Sensitized to Violence

In the September issue of Standpoint Magazine, Jessica Mann – a regular reviewer for the Literary Review and a writer of crime fiction for over 35 years – expressed her disgust over how a number of crime titles she gets for review increasingly resort to graphic violence:

When a female corpse appeared on the jacket of a crime-writing

colleague’s new book, she pointed out to her publisher that the victim

in the story was actually a man. Never mind that, came the reply, dead,

brutalised women sell books, dead men don’t. Nor do dead children or

geriatrics. Which explains why an increasing proportion of the crime

fiction I am sent to review features male perpetrators and almost

invariably female victims — series of them.  Each psychopath is more

sadistic than the last and his victims’ sufferings are described in

detail that becomes ever more explicit, as young women are imprisoned,

bound, gagged, strung up or tied down, raped, sliced, burned, blinded,

beaten, eaten, starved, suffocated,  stabbed, boiled or buried alive. 

And so, having had enough, Mann concluded: “So however many more outpourings of sadistic misogyny are crammed on to the bandwagon, no more of them will be reviewed by me.”

Almost two months later, after a bit of discussion by Martin Edwards and Maxine Clarke, now the broadsheets have climbed aboard this old bandwagon and blown it up to their liking. Instead of just giving up on serial killer thrillers and uber-violent crime novels, now Mann is purported to be quitting reviewing altogether, which makes for a catchy headline but isn’t quite the truth (oh, well that’s so inconvenient.)

But Mann’s out-of-context statements aside, here we are, back on another go-round of a conversation that’s raged in crime fiction circles for years. Are we too desensitized to violence, as Val McDermid says in the Observer piece that’s been cited most this weekend? Or, as Transworld publishing director for crime Selina Walker says in the same piece, is it that “readers like to be vicariously frightened by stories of what’s going

on in the wicked world outside but closure is always a total given?”

The answers are manifold, depending on perspective as a reader or writer, and what sort of threshold is in place for how much is acceptable, violence-wise, within the pages of a crime novel. (And I agree with Steve Mosby – you want real, disgusting, balls-to-the-wall violence, read a horror novel.) But all the discussion about graphic violence masks what seems to me the larger issue: if all the other elements of a crime novel work, then be as violent as necessary, because if I’m engaged by the characters, when they go through turmoil, I feel alongside them and the cause and effect is heightened that much more. But too many novels of an uber-violent bent that I’ve picked up lately – no names, because I never got far enough into such books to count them as “read” – think that violence for violence’s sake, without taking the time to invest in believable characters or a good story or making sure I, as a reader, actually care about what’s going on, will save the book. It doesn’t. And as a result, the serial killing action turns into cliche and bores the ever living crap out of me.

Consider, too, that as scary and lurid and disgusting as some of these books are (at least to Mann), the problem is exacerbated by their being an orderly ending that dispenses with the unruly, graphic chaos. The reality is more mundane, and thus, more scary. I spent the past weekend reading up on an unknown killer now dubbed EAR-ONS, whose pathology is orderly, fascinatingly textbook, and – by virtue of being a phantom who suddenly stopped in 1986, that much scarier than fiction. I’ve read a lot about serial killers, real and fictional, and yet this purported recording of the UNSUB’s voice* is one of the creepiest I have ever heard (it didn’t help that I clicked on the link late at night.) 

Chances are, if EAR-ONS is ever caught, his backstory will prove to be as unscriptable and unspeakable as that of Dennis Rader, whose unmasking as the BTK Killer proved to hinge on a twist so stupid – the metadata on a 3.5” floppy disk – it would never pass muster in a novel. But it’s the little things, the most incidental ones, that really resolve order into chaos, turn horrible violence into a proper narrative – and when such connections, and more importantly, emotions are lost in the pursuit of telling yet another cliche-filled story, everyone loses out.

UPDATE: The Observer updated its article with the following note: “This article was amended on Tuesday 27 October 2009. We previously said

that one of the country’s leading crime writers and critics “is

refusing to review new books” but that should have been “is refusing to

review some violent new books”. This has been corrected.” That’s because Mann left comments on various websites as follows: “I never said and it is not the case that I’m giving up reviewing. What

I did say is that I’ve had enough torture-porn – which is a very small

subsection of crime fiction – and won’t review that any more.”

UPDATE 2: Val McDermid responds with an essay in the Guardian about how Mann’s complaints mask the real point, as she sets out in the first couple of paragraphs:

Remember the Golden Age of detective fiction? Agatha Christie,

Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham … Well, yes. But the person who

sold more books back in the 30s than all of them rolled together was a

poisonous Little Englander called Sydney Horler

whose books were badly written, brutish, nasty, antisemitic, homophobic

misogynies that sold by the barrowload. They’ve since fallen into

obscurity, known only to keen students of the darker corners of the


So what’s my point? Well, I have two. One is that quality

lasts and rubbish meets its deserved fate. The other is that there have

always been books that rely on something other than quality to make

their mark.

And if a lot of the schlocky crap sucks, it will not endure. Simple as that.

*According to the EAR-ONS website, “the last known contact made by the EAR/ONS was a phone call that he made to one of his victims either in 1990 or 1991.” Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find independent corroboration, so I have no idea why the UNSUB would have called one of his victims years after his last known murder, or if this event took place.