Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Explicit Violence in Crime Novels


I’ve been watching a series of documentaries on TV recently (The Plantagenets) and recoiling at the number of times Professor Robert Bartlett tells us Kings and Princes were captured and then had their heads cut off. It was common practice back then, together with bodies being impaled and dismembered.

Image: British Library
Another British historian, Ian Mortimer, writes about the often brutal reality of everyday life during the Middle Ages and the violent excesses of the time. He puts this down, in part, to the fact that most people were wandering around drunk, as alcohol was considered the only way to ingest liquids without poisoning oneself.

The ‘history of violence’ is an intriguing, but huge, topic I am unable to give justice to here, but it links in with worldwide concern that in our present culture, violence as depicted graphically - on film, video-games and in books - influences the behaviours of people who already have latent violent tendencies. The theory is these vulnerable individuals experience barbaric violence vicariously through a crime novel or film and are spurred on to play it out for real.

I think this topic is more likely to be the subject of a PhD than a Blog - but ultimately, my investigations into the impact of extreme fictional violence leave me with more questions than answers. Here are a few of them:

  1. Do we become inured to violence and regard it as ‘run of the mill’ when we come across it so frequently – in the media (real) and in a fictional manner?
  2. Do we sometimes fail to differentiate violent episodes on the news from those we see in a fictional setting?
  3. Does the constant depiction of violence in novels, dramas, films etc lead people who are already emotionally unstable to act out in a copy-cat fashion?
  4. Do writers feel they need to shock – with excessive sex and/or violence - in order to set themselves apart?
  5. Should we be worried about people who enjoy graphic violence or is that merely a safe way for them to contain it?

Anders Breivik found sane: (Norway massacre, 2011): Telegraph

Even Jo Nesbø - the king of Norwegian Crime Fiction - admits he went too far with violence in his novel, The Leopard. 'It was me being just a little bit too pleased with my own description of pain and horror, and looking back, I regret it, because it wasn't needed. A Finnish designer once said everything that is not needed on a house will sooner or later seem ugly. I think it's the same with words. I put those sentences there for the wrong reasons.'

Personally, I find novels and films with too many gory details unpleasant and distasteful.  But what is 'too much?' Coming from a Psychotherapy perspective, I recognise that everyone's level of what is acceptable is likely to be different. But should we be monitoring it with more vigilance?

I’d be pleased to hear your views on this issue...

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AJ Waines is the author of Psychological Thrillers:  The Evil Beneath and Girl on a Train.
Both books went to Number One in 'Murder' and 'Psychological Thrillers' in the UK Kindle charts.