Friday, September 23, 2011

There Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens

On Monday, my good friend Della posted "Last Night I Went to Bed With a Murderer" about her propensity for reading murder mysteries in bed. Excellent stuff; you should go read it if you haven't already. Della's post got me to thinking about reading in bed and especially about reading spinetinglers in bed. The fact is, though, I can't. First of all, my record for staying awake while reading in a horizontal position is somewhere around 11 minutes. But, more importantly, I don't like my spine tingled at any time, especially not when it's dark and who knows what might be lurking outside. When you live in the sticks, there are enough creepy noises in the night. I don't need some author prompting me to imagine even more.

I admit it: as a reader and viewer, I'm a complete coward when it comes to violence, horror and sometimes  even suspense. I was the kid who had to leave the room when The Twilight Zone came on. Just hearing the theme's dee-dee-dee-dee dee-dee-dee-dee would have me rocketing out of my chair. The first movie I ever went to was Pinocchio, and when he got swallowed by the whale well, let's just say that's 50 cents my mother regretted spending.

I haven't gotten a lot more sanguine with age. I've never seen Jaws or The Exorcist. And don't even think about trying to persuade me to see them now. It would just confirm what I already know–and make me bitterly resent you on top of it. We don't want that, do we?

I'm only slightly better when it comes to books. My preferred mysteries are those in which the violence occurs off scene. It isn't that I've never read suspense or thrillers. I've read some of Val McDermid's Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series, for example. I can't say they weren't excellent, but when I got to one with the title The Torment of Others, I took that as a none-too-subtle hint that it would be beyond the horizon of my tolerance. I mean, seriously: the torment of others? I won't watch America's Funniest Home Videos because it torments others too much. I gave up Stuart MacBride's Logan MacRae series when I read Flesh House (a major mistake for me) and the titles alone of his subsequent books make it clear to me that I got out in the nick of time: Blind Eye, Dark Blood and Shatter the Bones.

I've been a big fan of Jo Nesbø's Harry Hole series, set in Oslo, but his most recently translated book, The Leopard, features a serial killer whose work is spectacularly creepy and repulsively gruesome. This from a guy who has written a children's book called Doctor Procter's Fart Powder? But he's hardly the first author who has decided, for some reason inexplicable to me, that a serial-killer plot is just the ticket. Well, not only are those books too scary for me, the last thing I want is to be taken into the twisted psyche of the killer, which seems to be part and parcel of serial-killer books. The book becomes a cat-and-mouse game in which the reader is invited to feel at least a tug of sympathy for the killer. I prefer my murderer to have a particular animus toward one person (I might stretch it to a small group of people), and I like him or her to have a reason for murder that I can relate to, even if I wouldn't find it sufficient to drive me to shoot, stab, poison, electrocute, cosh or otherwise dispatch the victim.

So, is it clear to everyone that when it comes to violence, horror and serial killers, I'm way off the bandwagon? What appeals to me about crime fiction is the puzzle solving and the characters. I want to read books that tell the truth about the characters in it and how they came to do whatever it is they do. True, in one case, that character will have committed the ultimate sin. But I don't need to have that sin described to me in graphic detail or have the victim's terror and pain played out in the text.

In light of this confession of my lily-livered nature, some might think it's strange that I read a lot of World War II history in which, of course, there is enough horror for even the most intrepid reader. But somehow, I feel that because there can be such real horror in the world, I don't want it in my fiction reading. I know there are many other readers who feel just the opposite: they will read novels with violence and horror, but don't want that in their nonfiction reading.

But back to mystery. In traditional mysteries, the reader need never see into the full depravity of the murderer's mind because, for one thing, the murderer is exposed at the close of the book. But just because a book isn't filled with teeth-clenching suspense or harrowingly graphic descriptions of violence doesn't mean that it's mild or dull. The discovery of the victim's body can be a moment of shock and horror; all the more so because the reader hasn't been subjected to a literally blow-by-blow account of how the corpse came to be. The examination of motives and the revelation of the murderer's identity are often emotionally intense.

In Dorothy L. Sayers's Gaudy Night, there isn't even a murder, but when Lord Peter Wimsey takes center stage in the Senior Common Room of an Oxford women's college and reveals the identity of the person who has been leaving poison pen notes and playing increasingly nasty tricks on its faculty and students, it's one of the most emotionally raw and intense moments in crime fiction. I recently re-read Ngaio Marsh's A Clutch of Constables (or, rather, listened to the audiobook), and Agatha Troy's horror when, while admiring the river and countryside while on a barge cruise, she discovers a murder victim, is arresting:
"Troy leant on the starboard taffrail and watched their entry into this frothy region. She remembered how she and Doctor Natouche and Caley Bard and Hazel Rickerby-Carrick had discussed reality and beauty. Fragments of conversation drifted across her recollection. She could almost re-hear the voices.
'–in the eye of the beholder–'
'–a fish tin with a red label. Was it the less beautiful–'
 '–if a dead something popped up through that foam–'
'–a dead something–'
'–a dead something–'
'–through that foam–'
'–a dead something–'
Hazel Rickerby-Carrick's face, idiotically bloated, looked up; not at Troy, not at anything. Her mouth, drawn into an outlandish rictus, grinned through discoloured froth. She bobbed and bumped against the starboard side. And what terrible disaster had corrupted her river-weed hair and distended her blown cheeks?"
I was out walking on a warm, sunny day when I reached this point in the audiobook, but I felt a chill upon hearing these words and visualizing the scene so vividly portrayed. I had a real feeling of the disorientation and shock Troy felt when making this nightmarish discovery. And that's what works for me. Horror once removed. (At least once; after all, I am a chicken.)

My state of mind puts me on the sidelines when people rave about authors like Mo Hayder, Thomas Harris and Jeffery Deaver, but I know there are plenty of other people who can't wait to read their books. Some of my best friends enjoy a good nightmare-inducing plot, an evisceration or two and witnessing a gruesome autopsy alongside a medical examiner who is expert in the arcane ways of establishing time of death. Who knows, some of the Material Witnesses may be in that group. If so, we'll be hearing from them very, very soon.

So are you in the chicken coop with me or are you prowling around the pen, just waiting to pounce? If you're in with me, you're probably already familiar with classic authors like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Ngaio Marsh. Have you tried modern authors like Louise Penny, Reginald Hill and Fred Vargas? These are authors who don't sneak up behind you and yell Boo! but who also don't shy away from examining the feelings that compel a murder and describing the emotional impact of the crime on witnesses and those connected to the victim.

Now if you're not a chicken, my recommendation is um, uh . . . Can I get some help here? 


  1. ****I don't like my spine tingled at any time, especially not when it's dark and who knows what might be lurking outside. When you live in the sticks, there are enough creepy noises in the night. I don't need some author prompting me to imagine even more.***

    True. (grin)

    Which reminds me of a book I just read (ebook style) from Mary Roberts Rinehart under the mistaken impression that it was the book that preceded the movie The Spiral Staircase (1945). I first watched that movie alone, at night, in an old creaky house.EEEEKK!!!

    Back to the book----- which is The Circular Staircase. Not scary but full of creaks and bumps in the night.

  2. ****witnessing a gruesome autopsy alongside a medical examiner who is expert in the arcane ways of establishing time of death.****

    Speaking of which: I just finished a book (not in ebook format):

    BODIES WE'VE BURIED: Inside the National Forensic Academy, the World's Top CSI Training School
    by Jarrett Hallcox, Amy Welch and Bill Bass (May 1, 2007)

    As a person (me) who buried dead birds I found as a kid, put them in a jar and then buried them only to keep digging it up to see 'what was happening' I enjoyed this book. (NO, I didn't contribute to their demise!!!)

    Publishers Weekly spent their few bytes criticizing writing style and 'their failed efforts at sardonic humor'.

    Booklist states:

    ***Given the popularity of CSI and its many imitators, many will find reading about the real science enlightening and engrossing. Kristine Huntley***

    Moving on------- I enjoyed the 'black humor'. So if you're looking for fine literature---- stay away from this book. If you like science and aren't turned off by the subject matter you may enjoy it.

  3. I'm an in-betweener. I need to be able to jump the chicken coop fence. If something's too cozy, I get bored. For example, I'm reading a cozy from a series centered around home improvement. I really could care less about home improvement tips and the protagonist's irritation with her bathroom...On the other hand, I'm not big into super-grisly serial murderer stuff anymore either. I like my Agatha Christie but I also like my Louise Penny...

  4. cave76, thanks for your recommendations. That BODIES WE'VE BURIED is definitely not something I'd be reading, but it's a handy tip for the non-chickens. If you like that kind of thing, though, did you read Mary Roach's STIFF? It's nonfiction and funny, informative and not like anything I've ever read before.

    Lisa, I've never read one of the home improvement cozies. I've never read any of the craft-y cozies either. I can barely sew on a button, so I figure I couldn't relate. Louise Penny is one of my absolute favorites. I even got my husband to read her books.

  5. Cl-cl-cl cluck! Cluck! I've known you for several years, Sister, and I still remember the first time you told me you can't read psychological suspense, that the mere sight of the name Barbara Vine on a book's cover was too much for you. My jaw hung open for days. Who would have known this about the lawyer who deals so effortlessly and crisply, so FEARLESSLY, with taxes and the IRS?

    Of course, you know I'm teasing you. I'm not the Material Witnesses' biggest fox (that might be Della Streetwise, who when cut oozes adrenalin), but I do love psychological suspense, suspense, thrillers, noir, forensics, and hard-boiled fiction in addition to more traditional mysteries. In fact, I enjoy all the mystery subgenres. (That doesn't mean I enjoy all writers or books!)

    I won't read badly crafted fiction with cardboard characters in which the only notable feature is the amount of blood that runs down the walls or watch movies like the Saw series.

    The problem with a serial killer is that some writers use it like a driver uses the car's cruise control; it's an easy way to mindlessly move from Point A to Point B. I'd guess that there are more poorly written books using a serial killer villain than any other villain in today's crime fiction.

    If I take a nightmarish book to bed, there must be a warm body for me to plant a foot against while I'm reading. Sometimes the constant pressure of my foot is too much for my husband and our dogs, and they move en masse to the spare bedroom, and then, to my chagrin, I have to switch to reading something less disturbing.

    I read Truman Capote's IN COLD BLOOD as a kid. That is an excellent book, but I don't read much true crime any more. The knowledge that Giles Blunt's books are inspired by true crimes makes me cringe while reading his John Cardinal police procedures, but I do enjoy them. Elizabeth George claims in THIS BODY OF DEATH that any resemblance between that book of fiction and any real-life occurrence is only coincidental, but her book's characters and events have very obvious similarities to the 1993 James Bulger abduction and murder in England.

    Why read one book or watch one movie yet balk at another that seems similar? The limitations one puts on tolerable reading or viewing (because of issues with the depiction of violence) can be flexible or inflexible in ways that may be difficult to explain even to one's self.

    At the end of your blog, Sister, you asked for help with recommendations for your unfeathered friends. I'm happy to oblige with a few suggestions for psychological suspense: Patricia Highsmith (STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and the Hitchcock movie inspired by it; her fascinating Tom Ripley books are about a protagonist with sociopathic tendencies--start with THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY and then watch the movie); Ruth Rendell, especially when she writes as Barbara Vine; Geoffrey Household (try ROGUE MALE); P. M. Hubbard (try A THIRSTY EVIL); Celia Fremlin; Margaret Millar; Minette Walters. More disturbing are Mo Hayder and Karin Fossum.

    I recently read Mary Willis Walker's UNDER THE BEETLE'S CELLAR. Whoa! Try it on for suspense.

  6. Better to be a fowl than to perform a foul deed.

    Enjoyed this blog.

    My recommendation isn't exactly a mystery but non-chickens might love it-- Heart-shaped Box by Joe Hill (Stephen King's kid). TGIF and have a good weekend, all. Kev

  7. I failed to mention one of my favorite police procedurals. I especially like it for its depiction of the landscape and culture of Brazil and its focus on social justice. It's written by Leighton Gage. His protagonist Mario Silva investigates criminal matters for the federal police. This is a hard-boiled series but the violence isn't gratuitous, it's part of an environment in which corruption blossoms in local police stations and government and there is a terrible disparity of wealth and power between the monied/propertied and the poor/landless. The series begins with BLOOD OF THE WICKED, in which we learn why Silva took to a career as a cop, and is followed by three other series books. The new one will be out in December and is titled A VINE IN THE BLOOD.

  8. Thank you so much, Della, for your kind words about the Silva series.
    It's people like you that I do it for.
    (Sure as heck not for the money.)
    Great blog!
    I'm truly enjoying it.

  9. Leighton, thanks very much for dropping by and your kind words about Read Me Deadly. You'll pay for your kindness when we stick you up for an author interview soon.

    Della isn't the only Read Me Deadly Material Witness who likes Leighton Gage's Mario Silva series set in Brazil. It's just as she describes it, a top-notch series. Here's The New York Times crime-fiction reviewer Marilyn Stasio on the 2010 series book EVERY BITTER THING:

  10. Hi Georgette,
    Thank You.
    It was very kind of you to point-out that review in the New York Times.
    Actually, I'm blessed.
    There are something like 5,000 mystery novels published each year in the United States.
    Marilyn, the NYTs mystery reviewer, manages to give space only to about 250 of them.
    And, of course, she's more-or-less obligated to review the big names.
    And yet, she's seen fit to mention me twice in four books.
    For which I'm most grateful.
    Sorry I didn't comment sooner about Della's remarks. I was travelling around Europe for over a month and then, when I got back, was working to a tight deadline.
    PERFECT HATRED the next book in the series won't be published until December of 2012, but my North American publisher had to have it before the beginning of December this year.
    Such is the nature of the American publishing business.
    Very long lead times.
    As to the author interview, I look forward to it.

  11. I feel for you when it comes to horror. I don't really enjoy horror at all unless its a movie or a drawing made by Timothy William Burton. Or it has Helena Carter or Johnny Depp in it and even then I'm scared out of my wits half the movie. When it comes to Pinocchio though... You and I are on two different sides. :P When I was little, I don't think I quite understood Pinocchio, so I didn't watch it very often (I have it on VHS). But as soon as I hit the ages of 12 and 13, my perception of the story flipped to the other side of the coin and I found an attraction to it that is still mystically attracting me to watch almost any Pinocchio movie I get my hands on more than once and is calling me to read and to reread the word-for-word translated-from-Italian story. I think Pinocchio is probably my all-time favorite fairytale. :) And by the way, I am 19 now and just finished my first year of college. :) I'd imagine, for once, I am younger than the person whom I am talking to online. Which, for some reason, makes me smile. :)

    Also, as an added note, my favorite kind of book is a fantasy story. :) Like the Inheritance Cycle or Harry Potter... Or even Redwall. :) ((I don't enjoy Twilight very much, though. I just like the graphic novel adaptation.))