End-of-Year Thoughts: How Much Blood on the Page?

By Janet LaPierre

Mine was a family of readers, and my mother’s term for the books that made up quite a lot of our casual reading was “murder mysteries.” Today those novels are more often called simply mysteries, or detective novels or cozies or suspense or thrillers; but the fact is that virtually all involve a murder, or two, or six. Walk into a big library or bookstore and ask for the mystery section, and you will find shelf after shelf of books in which someone (or some group of someones) is killing (or planning to kill) someone else.

Clearly the U.S. reading public has had a longstanding interest in crime and crime fiction. From Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie to Ian Rankin and John Harvey and P. D. James, from Tony Hillerman, Scott Turow, Sue Grafton and Michael Connelly and on to straight writers like Kate Atkinson and John Banville who double in crime novels, the reader can expect suspense, and danger, and sometimes bloody murder. But she will also find also good, complex stories and characters and often fine writing. These books not only entertain us, they inspire the writers among us who are not yet household names to keep working.

But now we have also the Scandinavians. They arrived here quietly a number of years ago with the Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö series from Sweden, which was chilly but good, with some humor as well as suspense. The Laughing Policemen won an Edgar Best Novel award in 1971, and was made into a movie.  Sjöwall and Wahlöö, a married couple, produced ten books in this Martin Beck  series, which ended when Per Wahlöö died in 1975. I’d read all of them, with great pleasure.

The works of the writers who followed Sjöwall and Wahlöö much later, like Henning Mankell and Håkan Nesser–and probably Jo Nesbø, whom I have not yet read—are grim, and meant to be. The Washington Times says of Woman With a Birthmark, “Nesser has written a fascinating study in the psychology of personal suffering.” Oh, good. And in Mankell’s The Fifth Woman, Swedish Inspector Kurt Wallander is working on two murders, that of a man impaled on sharpened bamboo poles in a ditch and the other of a man strangled and tied to a tree. These deaths are linked somehow to the murder of four nuns and an unidentified fifth woman in an African convent.

Although I didn’t love these books, I can say that they were well-written and suspenseful. The current block-buster from Sweden, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is indeed suspenseful, in fact terrifying, but not well-written nor particularly well-constructed. It does, however, have a fascinating main character, the girl named Lisbeth Salander; reviews of both the Swedish and the new American movie of the story make that clear. Those reviews don’t say much about the truly awful multi-victim crimes, committed over a long period of years and still on-going, that Salander and the writer who employs her investigate. And I don’t intend to say anything about them, either; some of you may not have read the book and I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you.

I have the second book in the series, but for some reason have not gotten around to reading it yet. In fact, I’m a bit troubled by a sense that the mind-set of these books could become more prevalent in the mystery field. A very good friend of mine, a constant reader of all kinds of mysteries, recently picked up a new novel by a writer whose three earlier books she had enjoyed, and set it quickly aside as too nasty. Subsequently I ran into serious trouble with two new mysteries, one by a Brit and the other by a pair of Finns.  Both these books dealt with the new-to-me subject of baby-farming, which involves a midwife’s being well paid to deliver the baby of an unmarried woman who doesn’t want her baby, but is assured by the midwife that a good home will be found for the child. In the story set in early twentieth-century Britain, the baby was most often simply killed and the body disposed of. In the present-time story, the new baby was indeed adopted, but a later sibling born to the now-married woman is stolen in brutal fashion for reasons that become clear only much later. I couldn’t finish the first of the pair, but I did gingerly flip through the second to find out whether my uncomfortable suspicion was true. It was.

And here’s a cheerful postscript to this screed. Turns out that P.D. James has a new book out, a book based on her favorite Jane Austen novel, Pride and  Prejudice. I don’t know just what  kind of story she’ll make with Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett, but I doubt that it will be grim or bloody. I can hardly wait to find out.


3 Responses

  1. It is interesting that so many people, me among them, derive so much pleasure reading about fictional murder and mayhem. And, like you, I can appreciate good writing but not enjoy the grim and bloody passages. I set aside The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo because it had too little of the former and too much of the latter for me. The Swedish film version was excellent, though I used the fast forward function more than once.

    Hope you had a happy Christmas, and I wish you all good things in the new year.

  2. I deplore gratuitous blood in fiction, too. And have always loved P.D. James, whether mystery or not. I do look forward to her version of Jane Austen. Deep characterization and no blood. My spouse has lapped up …Dragon Tattoo and its sequels while I quailed, although I rather admire Salandar! Wish I had her technological expertise!

    • Maybe it’s hereditary; my parents read mysteries, and so did I from youth on. Many of the early ones, like Christie, were not terribly grim; others of the “Down these mean streets” variety, were grim and dark, but didn’t dwell on psychopathic gore. Ah, well; we’re free to choose, and there are still those other writers I mentioned.

      Thanks, and may 2012 be good to you and your stories.
      Janet LaPierre .

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