Friday, March 20, 2009

Too Many Killings? by Chester Campbell

How much killin’ is enough? You expect to find murders in a murder mystery, but do some authors go overboard?

Lee Child is one who knows how to knock ‘em off with abandon. Jack Reacher and his antagonists can be counted on to dispatch up to a dozen or more in every book. Reacher does it with a bit of flair, killing in just about every way imaginable.

Robert B. Parker’s Spenser has been known to knock off a few bad guys, though he usually keeps it to a fairly low number. I seem to recall in Potshot, however, that Spenser and his crew stirred things up out in Arizona on a level that outdid the O.K. Corral guys by far.

Of course, when the good guys are pulling the trigger, it isn’t murder, it’s self-defense. But sometimes, it seems, they can get pretty self-indulgent.

When the mystery involves a serial killer, it’s a given that there will be a string of bodies laid out all through the book. Some authors delight in giving us all the gory details of how it happens. But are we any more enlightened than when we only learn the basics of the slaughter from a detective’s perspective or an autopsy report?

I have described a few deaths in my books, but I keep the gory details to a minimum. How do you feel about killings in mysteries? Are there too many? Are they too graphic?

Chester Campbell
Mystery Mania


Mark Troy said...

I think a distinction should be made between violence and gore that is intended to stress out the main character and that which is intended to stress out the reader. If the violence is put in only for the reader's thrill, it's like pornography, but if it is there to stress the main character and provide him/her with a powerful antagonist, it's a good story element. Of course most story elements have dual purposes and a writer on top of his craft can strike the right balance.

Jenn Nixon said...

I tend to read fiction with a lot of death in it. I don't need the gore. Just knowing how the person died is usually enough. Describing it before hand is like torture porn in the movies. Sometimes it's more effective if it's "off screen" anyway.

Great post!

Chester Campbell said...

Good point, Mark. I guess the proper term is gratuitous, or unjustified. That's gore for me. Violence is a given in most mysteries, particularly since murder, except for poison, is a violent act.

Chester Campbell said...

I agree, Jean. Most of the deaths in my books take place "off screen," although the characters sometimes come upon the aftermath. I don't go into nitty-gritty detail about the bodies, though. As you say, just knowing what happened seems sufficient.

Anne Carter said...

To me, a good book tells (shows! LOL) just enough to pique the imagination. It's not unlike sex scenes. Sometimes just a peek and the right, brief description is enough to set the mind off. Some of the best mystery/suspense movies make good use of this "keyhole" effect.

A little blood is fine, but a bloodbath is overboard for me.


Morgan Mandel said...

Great illustration - make me laugh.

If the killings are off stage in books, I don't care how many there are. When they strike home to the main character and I feel it also, then I don't want too many.

Morgan Mandel

Jean Henry Mead said...

Most of my victims are killed offstage and when I do kill onstage I never use knives or sharap objects because it gives me cold chills just thinking about it. I prefer blunt intruments, drownings, stranglings, car accidents, etc.

I think those of us who kill more than one victim per book are avoiding setting up complicated mystery puzzles, myself included.


Chester Campbell said...

Interesting theory, Jane. My last two books have each had three murders, but I used them to complicate the puzzle more. Why did this one get killed? Did the same one do it? Etc.

F. M. Meredith, author said...

Interesting post--I think the number of bodies depends upon the story--sometimes their needs to be a lot, at others one murder suffices.

a.k.a. F. M. Meredith

Mark Troy said...

Wow, Jean. You get chills from knives and sharp objects, but you're fine with bashing them with a blunt objects, or drowning and strangling them? I got it. It was Jean with the candlestick, in the poolhouse

Ben Small said...

Yes, Chester. I'm getting bored with so many serial killer stories around. I'd prefer a good story with good characters, a good setting and some plotting, rather than just a stack of bodies. If it serves a purpose central to the story, okay, but if it's just another serial killer story, I'll pass.

Dana Fredsti said...

It entirely depends on the story and whether or not the gore/killings actually serve t make it better. What I don't like in either books or movies is what they're calling 'torture porn.'

Larry W. Chavis said...

Quite often,less is more, for killings, gore, sex scenes, you name it. What sets the written story apart from passive media, like TV, is the engagement of the reader's mind and imagination in the story process. When it is well-done, the author and reader are literally partners in the creation of a story (for that particular reader). Too much gory detail deadens the imagination and stifles the process, and, as many have pointed out, approaches pornographic.

And, Ben, I get tired of serial killers, too, at least the ones portrayed as almost omnipotent in besting the good guys.

Of course, who am I to pontificate? Stephen King once said, "Go for the gross-out," and it seems to have worked for him (although there is far more to his work than just that).