As an author of crime-thriller fiction, I’ve occasionally been asked about violence in my novels. Typical questions range from, why is so much violence in your books? to another, more personal one: Is violence part of your personality or is it totally contrived for your novels?
Under the pen name Benjamin Black, Mann Booker winner John Banville has written a series (five or six novels) about Quirk, an Irish pathologist who tends to get caught up in helping the police solve crimes.
While it helps to have read the earlier novels, “Vengence” can stand alone as a mystery with holding power. The earlier novels set Quirk’s character in the context of a traumatic childhood which explains some of his aloofness, and sheds greater light on his relationship with his daughter Phoebe.
“Vengence” begins with an interesting set-up. A successful businessman in his mid-50s invites a 25 year old man, the son of his own business partner, to join him sailing on an Irish bay. When they are far from land, the older man stands up and relates how his own father left him in the street when he was about seven years old, just to test his mettle. After mentioning how he learned to rely on himself, the older man produces a pistol and shoots himself in the chest as the young man looks on in horror.
At that point, the mystery is what made the man do what he did. Things become more ominous when a few nights later, the dead man’s business partner (the 25 year old man’s father) is found drowned in the same bay. There are indications that violence may have been involved. Are these events tied to each other?
While the mysteries involved aren’t earth-shattering, they hold the reader’s interest. More intriguing is the author’s attention to detail and his ability to describe the most quotidian events with an uncanny eye–the smell of the streets, the look of sherry in a glass on a sunlit day, and other beautifully rendered word pictures. Again, if you get the chance, read Benjamin Black’s series of novels about Quirk. They’re well worth the read.
I’ve sometimes been asked what it is about crime fiction I love, and why I write about it. I must say though, I read much more than crime fiction, and am now reading “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn. Though it involves crime, it’s not pure crime fiction.
But I do love crime fiction. There’s something elemental about it–something universal and intriguing about a good crime story–either with or without violence, though most depict violence to one or another degree.
About violence: violent–even murderous impulses–reside within us all. You come across them in news items about wars or murder. You certainly see bloodlust when people rubberneck while passing an accident, or go to some sporting events (mixed martial arts, boxing matches, hockey games, football and wrestling contests). Or, when you read some of the world’s greatest literature, or view the foul arc of history.
As a psychiatrist who’s done forensic work, I’m aware that violent impulses are universally present. So to pretend they aren’t part of human nature is disingenuous.
Sex and violence sell, and there’s a reason for that. Despite my years of training in medicine and psychiatry, and no matter how peaceful a life I lead, I’m still intrigued by violence and crime. And so are most people, whether they admit it or not. And that’s partly why the best-seller lists are populated by novels about crime and violence.
I’ve always loved westerns, from “Shane” to “True Grit.” You know, the whole elemental thing about the Old West, about character, guts, exploration and true-to-life cynicism about people and their greed, motives and predilictions.
In “The Sisters Brothers” Patrick deWitt takes us in a whole new direction. He merges literary style with good old fashioned western elements of violence and frontier sensibility.
Charlie and Eli Sisters are gunslinger brothers hired by The Commodore to find and kill a thief. Narrated by Eli, the story takes unexpected twists and avoids most of the western cliches. Told beautifully, the novel finds its own niche as a gritty yet literary story that should sit right up there in the pantheon of great westerns. It’s funny, sad, realistic and a joy to read. Atmospheric of the 1850s, The Sisters Brothers is as relevent to our times today as any contemporary novel.