Gore, sex and the lazy truth about crime fiction

Saturday, January 11, 2014

We’ve all been there: you’re with someone who you really want to impress. Perhaps a new boyfriend or girlfriend, maybe just someone you like who you want to like you. It’s not going well, conversation is a bit of a struggle. But everyone has an absolute banker of a story: y’know that one that you genuinely don’t tell too many people. Truthfully, most of us will have at least one thing that’s happened in our pasts that will definitely get a reaction. It might not be the worst thing in the world but it means a lot to you personally and is guaranteed to have the person to whom you tell it widening their eyes, leaning in and saying something assuring. Deep down, they might feel sorry for you and their view on you as a person will shift slightly.

Everyone has a story like that because it’s part of being human.

But few people throw those stories out there on something like a first date or a first meeting because it’s completely inappropriate, plus it’s a false reaction. You don’t want someone to like you because they feel sorry for you. you want them to like you because you’re a rounded, real individual.

And those are the reasons why my books are almost entirely gore and sex-free.

I have no moral obligations against either of those things in terms of fiction but, through storytelling, I consider them to be the same type of cheap, slack devices as when you pull out a sob story to make someone feel sorry for you.

Within their own contexts, they’re fine of course. I’ve not read Fifty Shades – but if it’s a book about sex and it has sex scenes, then fair enough. If you’re writing a crime book about crime, then it’s not.

I could easily write something gory or explicit. There’s no skill there, but, in doing so, all I’d be doing is searching for a cheap-as-chips response from my readers and that’s just lazy. I’d be doing that because I’m such an appalling desert of imagination that I can’t get a reaction any other way.

I want readers to have a strong feeling – like or dislike – towards Jessica and, indeed, all of my characters. I want them to think of my creations as rounded, real individuals and come back to read more books in the various series because of that.

There are thousands of crime books published every year. I don’t believe anybody reads my books because they’re desperate to know the identity of the next crime I’ve come up with, nor because there’s a twist at the end. EVERY crime novel/movie/TV episode, etc, has some sort of twist or revelation – that’s the game. You can be as smart as you want but, because it’s expected, most people won’t care. They’ll think, ‘Oh, that’s clever’, or, ‘Oh, that’s surprising’, finish the book/movie/TV show, and move onto the next thing. You’re yesterday’s fish and chip paper, discarded and largely forgotten. What readers and viewers DO care about is people – characters.

I want readers to to speculate about what comes next; to buy the books on the day they come out, or pre-order; to look forward to publication days; to email and contact me in the meantime because they’re interested and concerned about what happens. I want all of that because it makes me successful as a storyteller and means I’ve done what I’m supposed to do.

For the most part, I believe I’ve achieved that. My readers are fantastic and the contact from them between releases is sometimes at the point where I struggle to stay on top of it. I’ve had seven consecutive crime books in Amazon’s top-20. I’ve had ebook pre-orders go to number one above worldwide sensations such as Dan Brown and James Patterson without anything even close to the levels of marketing. I say that not to boast, but because I don’t believe that’s a result I could achieve if my books were full of throwaway shock-and-awe tricks.

Like the best horror movies – Kubrick, Hitchcock – the lingering memories are the ones where things happen away from the screen. It leaves a mark, unlike something in the vein of, say, Hostel or Saw, which is watched, winced at, and forgotten. It’s utterly disposable. It gets a reaction but it’s there and gone.

A connection from author to reader is so much more powerful if you’ve managed to make people care through creating characters to be loved or loathed, rather than throwing out cheap gore or sex scenes. Those thrills might get a basic shock-value reaction but also means many readers will have forgotten who you are a few days after they’ve finished reading.

And so, in the same way that we as people hold onto our most-affecting stories because, for the most part, we’re not after pity, I do the same in my books. I hold back as much as possible. I don’t want people to feel sorry for / despise / love my characters because I’ve described in intricate detail the horrible things that’s happened to them, or happened at their hand. That’s not a real reaction. I want readers to like – or dislike – my characters because of who they are.

Fiction isn’t that different to real life in that respect.