Posted by: Tony Carson | 14 September, 2007

Crime Writing: Exaggerated Degeneration

Exaggerated degeneration is now the default plot-line for much of the fiction industry. Sad but true.

Mary Collins makes this point in her op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor entitled, Enough with depressing reading lists, where she describes a few of the story-lines her daughter must endure in her summer book reading challenge.

I’ll make the point another way.

Many (most?) popular North American mystery writers these day have swapped nuance for the obscenely obvious. Two examples to make a point (that I know can’t be sustained with merely two examples):

Widely best-selling James Patterson litters his novels with corpses the better to pique our prurient interest; they fall with predictable rhythm in almost every chapter, a metronome of mayhem. None of the expired has any more character development than the ill-defined Sherlocks in hot pursuit of their killer who, himself, is nothing more than evil incarnate, writ large. Patterson’s books are nothing more than an orgy of death, faceless and superfluous death.

James Lee Burke takes a different route to the same destination. While an infinitely better descriptive writer than Patterson, he shows the same intellectual sloth when creating his villains: they are sadist psychopathic cutouts, icons of evil with nary a mention to how they got that way. But who cares? We aren’t reading to understand human nature, merely to be entertained by the carnage.

When you put down the book of the average North American crime writer, usually a quarter finished, you feel a little used, and a little unclean.

But wait! We’ve always got the Brits. Now they know how to spin a tale. Two examples:

Minette Walters goes deep inside the head of every character that walks across her pages and in the process shows that we all have the frailty to commit a crime inspired, not by evil, but by weakness. We are in her books, our confused, complex selves, not the ersatz composites conjured to scare.

And Reginald Hill. If you like characters it can take you half an hour to finish a page. Andy Dalzeil and Peter Pascoe are the chalk and cheese of crime fighting, as constantly at odds with each other as they are double-minded in their pursuit of criminals as quintessentially eccentric as … well, the British. The two are exemplars: Daizeil the unredeemable and totally uncaring slob; Pascoe, the over-sensitive, highly introspective non-cop, just as humbled by his job as he is by his wife at home, a wife, by the way, for whom I share an adoration and love.

The inhuman and exaggerated degeneration of the Bundys and Dahmers should be pushed from the human consciousness, not exploited as a short-hand to horror. There is no writing skill in that. It is merely a form of plagiarizing.

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