Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"OK, Fatso, Show Us The Forensic Evidence"


A review of the "A Mind for Murder" session at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival

To be honest, I only bought the ticket to the A Mind For Murder event (Auckland Writers And Readers Festival) because its category was CRIME. That, and because Craig Sisterson was chairing the panel discussion. I’d heard Craig in the role before and he’s one of the most professional, knowledgeable and entertaining chairs I know.

So when Jennifer Rowe had to be replaced at the last minute by Greg McGee, I didn’t mind. I came to hear about murder, and with authors Peter James and Paul Thomas making up the trio, I knew we were in for a very good Mother’s Day morning.

Violence In Crime Fiction was the first topic the panel challenged. Right up my particular alley of discontent. I’m a squeamish reader. Blame it on being brought up on Nazi concentration camp movies, but the idea of pain and torture makes me faint. Needless to say, when it comes to crime fiction, I’m drawn to the logical puzzle, not to the post-mortem analysis, and I’ll take Miss Marple over Dexter any day.

I know I’m not alone. So why the sudden influx of gratuitous gore and pointless pain in a genre that used to be famous for puzzle solving and pitching your wits against the detective’s in the race to discover who’d done it? Sunday morning’s panel blamed it on:
  • the TV’s search for sensationalism;
  • the public’s fascination with serial killers;
  • the need for instant gratification and titillation;
  • science (if Agatha Christie wrote her Poirot mysteries today, somebody in the room would be bound to stand up and say, “OK, Fatso, show us the forensic evidence.”)
  • desensitisation to violence, making it necessary for writers to reach new heights of horror with every book. (It’s a little like sex scenes, isn’t it? A few decades ago, we only needed the dot-dot-dot and our imagination. Now pick up a book, not necessarily a romance, and you get tag A going into slot B. And what’s on the bestseller list? Fifty Shades Of Grey with its explicit descriptions of sex, bondage and inflicting pain.)
When it comes to violence, women form softer targets and elicit more audience compassion, the panel said, so no wonder in books they end up being tortured more often than their male counterparts. Torturing an animal will get you even more attention. Reminds me of what a New York literary agent, Donald Maass advises writers to do: “If there is a dog in your book, kick it. If there’s a child, kill it. That’s the surest way onto the NYT bestseller list.”

Seems we only have ourselves to blame.

This thread led into the second topic of Sunday’s discussion, Crime Fiction And Literature. So many book critics believe the two to be mutually exclusive. One, apparently, goes as far as claiming that if a book is a page-turner, it has no literary value. At this point I would have loved to have such a critic on the panel, not only to throw rotten tomatoes at him, but also to hear his side of the argument. Why does a great book need to be inaccessible? Why shouldn’t a murder mystery carry an important message? Why can’t a literary work of art be enjoyed by the masses? Good writing is good writing, be it a literary novel or a medical thriller.

In fact, according to Lee Child, good writing is easier to find in genre fiction. His by now famous quotes include:
  • “We can all use big words, but we choose not to.”
  • "Why do some authors write literary fiction? Because they can't plot."

Being a bestselling author, he said it best.

This guest post was contributed by Yvonne Eve Walus, a published author of crime and romance novels. You can find out more about Walus and her writing here.

For more reviews and thoughts on the "A Mind for Murder" event:
Comments welcome.


  1. Great post Yvonne. I came along to A Mind for Murder as my pick of all the festival talks, and I wasn't disappointed. As you say, Craig was an excellent chair, knowledgeable and very relaxed, drawing interesting facts from the panel members.

    There may well be a current fashion for increasingly graphic violence, but that will probably change while the basics of good plot and great characters will never go out of style.

    That's what I'm aiming for, anyway!

  2. Thanks, Bev. I'll drink (Poirot's Creme de Menthe) to that!