To Gore or Not To Gore… And How Much?

by Janis Patterson

When one writes mysteries, one has to come face to the face with the problem of violence – when, to whom and how much. Almost every mystery – those for grown-ups, that is – includes an assault and/or a death. It is very rare to see a mystery without one or the other and usually both. Dead bodies are pretty much the raison d’etre of a mystery!

The question is, how did the body get dead, where is it found, what condition is it in, and how much – if any – of the actual crime do we show?

What they’re now calling cozy mysteries – the kind with a ditzy amateur sleuth with a terrible love life, a cute job, probably a shoe obsession and perhaps intelligent animals which may or may not solve the actual mystery themselves – usually back away from violence and its aftermath as much as possible. (And yes, I know there are exceptions, but it is the exception that proves the rule!) The dead body that propels the story is so sanitized and occasionally de-humanized that in some stories it resembles little more than a stage prop. Which is distressing but not surprising, as more and more publishers are demanding that the body appear in the first few pages if not on the first page itself. This makes it hard for the reader to regard said dead body as little more than a plot device instead of something that was once a living, breathing complete human being. (In case you didn’t know, this ‘where does the body appear’ thing is one of my hot buttons!)

What we used to call cozies are now in the labeling limbo of ‘traditional mysteries’ which to me means more realistic characters, more realistic actions by those characters, but with only minimal violence. There is blood, but only a tangential mention. My favorite description (taken from one of my own books, of course) talks about the body hastily covered with a now-stained bedspread (at the time of my sleuth’s arrival) with just a lip of wet red peeking out from under the edge. Enough description to evoke a feeling of horror at such a heinous and violent act, but most definitely not enough to revolt or sicken the reader. It’s sometimes a difficult balancing act.

In a hard-boiled or noir mystery, the violence is not only part of but sometimes seems to be the reason for the story. Descriptions of violence, whether or not they result in death, are often and lovingly detailed. Remember how often Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer either was beaten up (each blow described) or beat up the bad guy (each blow described.) He wasn’t the only one, either. There are scores of such novels celebrating violence written every day.

My personal bête noir example of gratuitous violence is Robert Ludlum. Yes, his novels are generally classified with thrillers, but in each one there is a mystery, and I’m trying to make a point here. I have publicly called his books ‘the pornography of death.’ Think about it – in sexual pornography nothing is hidden; every moan, every stroke, every touch, every single action is described, usually in loving and minute detail. Ludlum’s (and others’) do the same thing with violence. Every split of skin from a blow. The explosion of skin and the fountain of blood caused by the entry of a bullet… or a spear, or some other penetrating object. The crisping and blackening of skin as it begins to burn. Personally, I find it sickening, but considering how these books sell I’m obviously in the minority!

My feelings toward violence in my books are sort of like mine about sex in my books. They both happen, and we as readers know they happen, as we see the results, but they do not happen ‘on screen’ and there are no overly graphic descriptions.

Once a couple of decades ago I was doing make-up on the set of a horror film. A grizzled old hand and I were watching as an actor was being glued (yes, glued!) into his costume. The gaffer snorted derisively, saying that clump of foam and make-up wasn’t really scary.

Well, it was pretty scary-looking to me! When I told him, he said the purpose of a horror film was to scare people, and not all people were scared by all things. To really scare people, he said, you give a suggestion – a shadow, a hand or a tentacle, and let people create in their own head the thing that scared them the most. “Don’t show the monster,” he said. “Let people create their own monster.”

It’s the same thing with violence. A suggestion – ‘a lip of wet red peeking out’ – can evoke more feelings, more visceral reaction, than an entire thesaurus of detailed description. And that’s why I don’t write overt gore.