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.

Of Men and Monsters

by Janis Patterson

Not too long ago one of the radio shows we listen to gave the history of Andrew Kehoe, who on May 8, 1927 went on a mass killing spree. A strange sort of man, he was a farmer in Bath Township, Michigan. While he could fix almost any mechanical contraption – and often did for his neighbors without charge – he neglected his farm and abused his animals.

Then when the local school system raised his taxes by $19.80 cents to pay for a new school, something snapped. Kehoe decided to kill every schoolchild in Bath Township. He was hired to fix some electrical work at the new school, which he did, while putting in place massive charges of explosives. He had been setting off explosions at his farm, telling the curious he was just blasting up stumps. He had really been testing electric detonation devices. Finally, the day before school was to be out, he set off the explosives at the school. Then, having beaten his wife to death, he blew up his house, his barn, the trees on his place and his farm animals.

Having packed his car with explosives and every bit of scrap metal he could find around his farm, Kehoe drove into town, where he was horrified to find that only half the school had actually blown up. The explosion had apparently made the detonators in the other half malfunction. He was horrified to have failed. It is not known what he originally had in mind for his explosive-and-scrap metal loaded car, but he was determined to bring down the school completely and kill the children who had survived the original blast. He tried to get his car close to the still-standing half, but the school superintendent came up to ask what he was doing

Kehoe hit the detonator, killing the superintendent and himself, sending shrapnel-like shards out into the crowd of hysterical parents and destabilizing the remaining part of the school. Then it was discovered there were still unexploded charges in the school. By then the fire departments and others from nearby Lansing had arrived, and they sealed the building until the explosives could be cleared away. Of course, there were still children both living and dead in the school and their parents had to listen to their cries while not being allowed to go to them, or even know if their child was alive or dead.

Had he still been alive at that moment, Kehoe would probably have loved it.

So what makes such a monster? By all accounts until the tax bill arrived Kehoe was considered a pretty good guy. Perhaps a little eccentric in some of his ways, but who of us does not know – or is not – someone who doesn’t have a little bit of eccentricity? Yet how many turn into monsters?

Monster or saint, they are all human beings. Sometimes it stretches credulity that the same species which produces beings such as Mother Teresa, Albert Einstein and Dr. Alfred Schweitzer can also produce the likes of Adolf Hitler, Andrew Kehoe and Ted Bundy. But it not only can, it does with unwavering regularity.

So how does this affect our writing? We must remember that to be real our heroes and our villains must be human beings with flaws, strengths and weaknesses. No one person is either completely evil or completely saintly. Albert Einstein was an incredible genius, but he had – at least in his early years – a somewhat rollicking and for the time unconventional love life. I’m told Adolf Hitler was kind to cats.

As writers, if we wish to be good writers, we cannot commit the sin of making a character that is completely and thoroughly good or evil. That makes them one dimensional, a literary piece of cardboard who just stands there and parrots the words we put in their mouths.

To become a living, breathing, believable character your creation has to be a mixture of both good and evil. A character who does only good, proclaims only good and put good above all else no matter the cost to himself is a cartoon. (I’m thinking along the lines of Dudley Do-Right.)  Same thing with a villain and evil. Both of them must have some characteristics of the other – a hero who hates dogs and is not averse to a tiny bit of cheating on his taxes is a lot more believable as a human being, just as is a villain who donates to animal charities and helps old ladies across the street.

You must always remember that even heroes have dark sides and monsters have virtues. Perhaps not many, but each has some.