All for the Sake of Entertainment by Declan Burke

Tomorrow I will be reviewing Absolute Zero Cool by Declan Burke. Today I’m pleased to welcome Declan for a guest post, in which he ruminates on violence in crime fiction and the author’s “right” to write about it, and comes to a rather unexpected personal conclusion.

Declan BurkeI don’t think I’ve ever been so busy. Really, Elizabeth’s gracious offer to host a guest post by yours truly couldn’t have come at a better time.

Seriously.

Right now I’m supposed to be doing a final redraft on my latest book, Slaughter’s Hound (it’s a sequel to my first book, Eightball Boogie). And I am. Except I’m so busy fiddling with a word here or a comma there, an entire paragraph over there and three pages of exposition virtually everywhere, that I don’t have time to think about the bigger picture, and about what the book is really saying. So I’m very grateful for this opportunity to type out loud, as it were, and discover a thing or two about where the story is going.

I hope.

Anyway, as you can probably appreciate from the title, Slaughter’s Hound is not a cosy in which the mystery of the missing mittens is solved by a cat detective (note to self: sketch out synopsis for story about a serial-killer rabid dog who hunts down cat detectives). No, Slaughter’s Hound is old school. In fact, it kind of harks back to the Old West, and a time and place where the law was what the man with fastest draw said it was. In essence, it’s an eye-for-an-eye retribution tale featuring a protagonist who is, politically speaking, perhaps just a little to the left of LA Confidential’s Bud White.

This didn’t happen by accident, of course. I deliberately set out to write a right-wing treatise, mainly because Irish crime fiction, while offering virtually every other kind of variation on the crime / mystery novel, has yet to unearth its very own Mickey Spillane or early James Ellroy. Consciously or otherwise, most Irish writers cleave to the liberal model of the crime novel, which is to say that evil is not just always defeated, but is seen to be defeated, and generally as a result of the hero’s innate goodness, which usually manifests itself as a superior intellect and emotional intelligence, both of which the dastardly criminal lacks, being working class and stupid and starved of affection because his parents were working class and stupid and emotionally stunted. And on it goes.

This left-leaning liberal bent to the Irish crime novel, by the way, might well be following the (very general) rule of thumb which suggests that crime and mystery writers lean to the left, politically speaking, while thriller writers lean to the right. Until recently, there were very few thriller writers in Ireland; that is changing, and it will be interesting to see how the political landscape of Irish crime writing changes with it.

Meanwhile, it’s also true that the Irish crime novel, in common with most other territories’ crime novels, has for its structure the basic three-act drama of Greek tragedy. To wit: 1) Things Are Mostly Okay; 2) Things Get Screwed Up and / or Someone Sleeps With His Mom; 3) Things Are Mostly Okay Again. The best bit about this admittedly loose structure of catharsis and redemption and whatnot is that the middle act tends to the longest and juiciest one, during which all sorts of nasty things happen, all of them courtesy of the antagonist, so that wise heads can nod sagely when the bad guy is apprehended at the end of Act Three, because any bad guy is an affront against natural justice, and ensuring his collar is felt restores harmony and balance to the universe, the end, amen.

Eightball Boogie by Declan BurkeEssentially, both writer and reader can allow themselves to wallow in the juicy stuff in the middle act, sure in the knowledge that right will out and justice will be done. At its worst it’s a kind of titillating sadism leavened by a belated liberalism, the most acute example of which is The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

I do wonder, at times, as to the extent to which ‘justice’ is a fig leaf in crime and mystery fiction, designed to take the bare look off the naked and ancient savagery that is the lust for revenge, retribution and an eye for an eye. That instead of being the intelligent and sophisticated bunch we crime fiction readers believe ourselves to be as we peruse our contemporary Greek tragedies, we’re more akin to the pit baying for blood at the opening of Webster’s latest gore-soaked frenzy.

Which brings me back to Slaughter’s Hound. Things have not been mostly okay while I’ve been writing the book; in fact, we’ve been living through a three-or four-year middle act, in which Things Are Mostly Screwed Up, and that’s without worrying about who is or isn’t sleeping with his mom. The economic recession was bad enough, but things have been compounded by the loss of our economic national sovereignty; and while Ireland has to accept some blame for how it mismanaged its economy over the last decade or so, the fact remains that Irish tax-payers are being brutalised into accepting responsibility for the losses incurred by the gamblers and fortune-hunters of the international financial markets.

So what has the reaction been in Ireland? There’s been anger, certainly, which was most clearly articulated when the Fianna Fail-led government was swept from power last year, and the ranks of Fianna Fail decimated; and there has been some protest, although very little on the scale of that in Greece, for example, where strikes have become commonplace, and riots, and eruptions of violence. For the most part, Ireland has shrugged its shoulders, the better to allow its yoke settle, and trudged onwards.

Are the Irish more well-adjusted than the Greeks? Do we take more responsibility for our actions? Is our indifference to the economic austerity imposed by foreign powers a consequence of the Irish psyche being conditioned by 800 years of colonial rule to respond to hard times by bending the knee and proffering the begging bowl?

These were questions I wanted to address in Slaughter’s Hound; and, given that the book features a single protagonist, Harry Rigby, and that one man cannot effect a political revolution on his own (and that the book isn’t that kind of book), I decided to let the previously mild-mannered Rigby off the leash and avenge a loss he incurs by resorting to some fairly gruesome and lethal violence. There is no pretence to justice in Slaughter’s Hound; I remove the fig leaf and leave the reader in no doubt that what Rigby seeks is revenge, pure and simple. For good or ill (and I suspect ill), the book is fuelled by frustration, anger, protest and rage.

All of which was fine and well, and the book (for all its faults) was delivering exactly what I wanted to achieve, until shortly before Christmas. That was when news began to filter through of a family tragedy; a cousin of mine had killed his wife and young children, and then committed suicide.

That night I looked at my own wife, and my baby daughter, and knew that life would never be the same again.

Absolute Zero Cool by Declan BurkeNow, I know that very few crime writers set out to glorify violence, to make it cool or sexy or whatever you’re having yourself. But the fact remains that it’s difficult to write a crime or mystery novel without including some kind of violence (although that was precisely the challenge I set myself when I wrote The Big O), and it’s also true that violence, or our heightened awareness of it, is very much a part of contemporary living.

But I’m having second thoughts about Slaughter’s Hound right now, and third thoughts and fourth thoughts too, which is why I’m so busy trying to redraft it. Do I have the right to write about a theory of violence-as-protest when real violence causes so much misery on a daily basis? Am I, as a crime writer, entitled to live as a parasite on other people’s pain? Because, when I write about violence, and when I describe the act of violence, of the consequences of it, the rippling devastation caused by a single murder, it’s not my experiences I’m drawing on. I’m a leech living off someone else’s agony, and all for the sake of entertainment.

I took a pop at The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo earlier on, and I’m not the only crime writer to turn up his nose at Stieg Larsson’s trilogy; but the fact remains that Stieg Larsson was a serious writer who campaigned long and hard as a journalist on the subject matter at the dark heart of his novels. Which is to say, Stieg Larsson talked the talk, but he also walked the walk.

Can I say the same about myself? No.

I have a very strong feeling that Slaughter’s Hound will, once it’s finished, and rewritten to the point where I’m satisfied that it’s a novel about violence rather than a violent novel, will be the last crime novel I’ll write. Which is a terrible pity, because I quite like writing them. But maybe that’s the whole point.

[EAW Note: You can now read my review of Slaughter’s Hound.]

Journalist and author Declan Burke was born in Sligo, Ireland. He is the author of Eightball Boogie and The Big O, as well as the editor of Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century. His latest novel is Absolute Zero Cool. He lives in Wicklow with his wife Aileen and baby daughter Lily, blogs at Crime Always Pays, and can be found on Twitter @declanburke.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

5 Comments

  • Declan

    January 16, 2012 - 1:10 pm

    Hi folks –

    Many thanks for the comments. I do appreciate the idea that it’s not violence that readers read crime fiction for, but the consequences of it, as Thomas says.

    Maxine, I’m with you – I particularly despise (and refuse to read / review) the ‘torture porn’ novels, particularly those with scantily-clad young women on the covers.

    Colleen – You may have a point; there might be an element of the Roman Coliseum to reading crime fiction, although, as above, I don’t believe people read for the violence / murder, so much as to engage, even at a distance, with the unspeakable.

    Naomi – Hope you enjoy the rest of the book. Please keep me posted.

    Thanks a million for having me over, Elizabeth. I really appreciate it …

    Cheers, Declan

  • Colleen Collins

    January 16, 2012 - 12:27 pm

    Thoughtful article, thank you.

    When you mention the Old West, remember that families would pack picnics and take their children to watch hangings. Going back to Biblical times, people have gathered to observe violent acts (for example, public stonings). Maybe there’s a correlation to reading crime novels filled with violent scenes.

    I abhor gratuitous violence in life, books, film (etc). However, in a story, if a crime of violence is well-motivated, or a crime of violence triggers a character’s well-motivated actions, it can be a rewarding read.

  • Naomi Johnson

    January 16, 2012 - 11:58 am

    I’ve recently, by way of some internal family brangling, come to the conclusion that I will never be able to delve deeply into characterization because I cannot make myself go where the characters’ pain is. Maybe that means my writing will never be more than superficial. Okay then. I can stick to blogging.

    Just started reading ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL at the dentist’s this morning (how’s that for pain?). I’m loving it; should be renamed TOTALLY COOL.

  • Maxine

    January 16, 2012 - 10:56 am

    Very good article. Just to pick up one aspect of it: I hate reading about explicit violence, torture etc, and simply cannot understand why the subgenre sells so well and is so popular, with women readers as well (as they are usually the victims in these books). There is a disturbing newish trend for children to be victims (eg The Child Who, Boy in Suitcase, etc).

    In a slightly different context, I asked if it is possible to sell well, write good crime books, and not “do” slasher/gore. I answered myself yes – eg M Connelly, I Rankin, H Mankell, S Grafton, R Rendell/B Vine.

    There are very many crime novels that I think are excellent and don’t feature explicit violence (but that don’t sell as well as the previous mentioned authors!). Many of the Scandinavian authors appeal in this way (Theorin, Marklund, Alvtegen, A Larsson etc). But also, many others (an Irish eg is Gene Kerrigan).

  • Thomas Pluck

    January 16, 2012 - 10:35 am

    A good read. I find that violence without consequences is cheap. It affects the victims and ripples out, but it also affects the perpetrator, whether they are the protagonist or not.
    Catharsis is good, but the normality in the third act must be irrevocably changed. If the ending is happy, it is in spite of itself…