Paul: Readers are often surprised at the violence and sheer nastiness in Val McDermid’s mysteries yet I have to wonder why. Writers of the "gentle persuasion" have often produced stomach churning descriptions of crime scenes and lovingly laid out the repellant mindset of the murderer…I remember more than one person being repelled enough by Mo Hayder's first book, Birdman, to never read her again.
Barry: Well, I didn’t like Birdman, but it had more to do with her sensationalizing the violence, not the violence per se, and I certainly had no problem with a woman writing it. Women have written mysteries and violent crime books practically since the genre began.
Paul: Are there gender differences in writing? A recent parody of the popular Mars/Venus refrain runs “Men are from Earth, Women are from Earth…Get Over It!!” This could be applied to those typecasting mystery writers. We do have artificial categories of Men's Hard Tough Stuff and Women's Domestic Mysteries but they describe groups of readers rather than the writers who produce it.
Barry: I agree. Women writers have always been involved in writing violent crime. You can take it back pretty nearly to the beginning with Agatha Christie. She wasn’t squeamish about depicting either violent scenes or the violent emotions that produced them. The crimes may have been depicted in genteel settings, but the crimes were still pretty violent.
Paul: Its all about imagination and the willingness to understand deviance and the possible motives behind unthinkable deeds.
Barry: I think there’s a sociological aspect to crime writing. It explores the dark side of society. It tells us what we are afraid of in the same way that horror fiction does, but in a more realistic manner. Writers have nasty imaginations. Take Patricia Highsmith: her first novel, Strangers On A Train, came out in 1950 and was made into the famous Hitchcock film. The interesting thing about Highsmith is that you never know her own take on her characters. They’re always slightly amoral and unsavory but she doesn’t judge them as a narrator. She just presents them and lets the reader make up their own mind about them, which I find highly appealing.
Paul: If you bring in Kirino’s Out you move up to a slightly tougher yet still subtle Hitchcock-like everyday gruesomeness with just a dash of humour. Or there’s someone like Karin Fossum who though she focuses on character doesn’t shy away from the unsavoury details of the crime scene. Outside the genre, we have the bestselling The Lovely Bones in which Alice Sebold describes the aftermath of a rape murder from the viewpoint of the child victim. Its an oddly moving book and though not graphic in the slightest, the premise itself kept me from reading the book for a long time. When I finally did I was moved by the almost gentle narrative.
Barry: On the opposite end of the scale are forensic novelists like Kathy Reichs, and Patricia Cornwell or one of my current favorites, Barbara Nadel. She writes about a modern Turkish policeman.
Paul: Gender is one of the red herrings in the ocean of literature…authors write books, readers read them. Whether the books are good are bad is what matters.
Paul: In Peter Robinson’s Strange Affair, I think as with all of his books that the focus is not so much the mystery but rather the continuing adventures of Alan Banks. While Banks is a competent and even brilliant detective, what is most compelling about him is the rollercoaster of his life; he ranges from being quite happy and responsible to near alcoholic and bordering on clinical depression.
Barry: Well, as I always say to critics of so-called genre literature, I think that’s true of most modern crime and mystery books. The characters are not two-dimensional cutouts. They’re every bit as rich and complex as any mainstream novel. And sometimes they have an advantage over mainstream novels, as you see these characters over a series of books and under the most trying of circumstances possible. One thing I find interesting about Robinson is that he’s displaced: he writes about Yorkshire but lives in Toronto.
Paul: They say “write what you know”. And generally that holds. With Robinson, he was born in Yorkshire, so that’s where his novels take place. It has something to do with history, too. Time has to pass before you see events in context. Philip Kerr’s Berlin Trilogy couldn’t have been written right after the Second World War.
Barry: What about cultural perspective? Giles Blunt, whose new book is in a later episode of Booked, has said that when he came back to his home town of North Bay after living in New York for years, it made him see it as exotic and as a possible location for his John Cardinal series. Maybe something like that is happening with Robinson. Though comparing those two writers might be like comparing apples and oranges.
Paul: Comparing fruit or writers you might run up against this thing called isomorphism.
Barry: Oh wait, does that mean the author’s fat or thin? No, that’s endo- or ectomorphism.
Paul: It’s when something is identified with just one aspect of it’s properties. Like oranges becoming associated with vitamin C. It doesn’t matter if oranges have other things going for them or if there’s other things that are a better source of vitamin C. To most people, oranges equal vitamin C.
Barry: Right. Like Carl Hiaasen is the embodiment of Florida (speaking of oranges), just as James Lee Burke is New Orleans, and of course, Peter Robinson is Yorkshire, despite there being dozens of other writers doing equally valid visions of those places.
Paul: There’s also the insider/outsider perspective. Coming from outside to see a place with new eyes, or an insider seeing things that an outsider wouldn’t see. Police and crime procedurals in general are insider perspective books. The reader sees crime through the eyes of an insider, the policeman. Of course, some of these insiders are pariahs, socially, which means they’re actually outsiders.
Barry: Outsider perspective. That’s like the movies, where two of the most American films ever made, Coalminer’s Daughter and The Great Gatsby, were both made by British directors. But, it can also be limiting if a writer is identified with a particular location and they want to change locales.
Paul: Some readers were annoyed when Burke started a new series set in Montana, while most have enjoyed Martin Cruz Smith moving his Russian cop Arkady Renko from place to place, like when he went to Cuba. A great character developed over time can either resonate with a place or be played off against an unfamiliar setting. Even Inspector Banks pursued a case into Canada.