03 October 2016

Blood and Gore

by Janice Law

Some time ago, our SleuthSayers colleague Eve Fisher wrote a good piece on why she hated (fictional) serial killers. I had to agree that too often the serial killer is a convenient, if callous, way to hype up the tension and excitement of a book and not always just in horror fiction or low level pulp. There are some really good writers like Jo Nesbo and Jussi Adler-Olsen, whose style and characterizations I otherwise admire, whose fondness for killers commiting ingenious and torturous murders strikes me as dubious both ethically and aesthetically.

Recently, a couple of writers new to me have got me thinking about serial killers again and even more, about the strain of ingenious sadism which so often accompanies their fictional arrival. John Hart’s The Last Child and Zygmunt Miloszewski’s Rage, one tangentially about a serial killer, the other, about a sadistic serial avenger, take radically different approaches.

Hart’s The Last Child throws a whole lot into the hopper: a young girl’s disappearance, a heroic boy out to find her, possible police corruption, a big helping of dismal history, and a touch of supernatural Southern Gothic. A synopsis of the plot practically screams exploitive melodrama, but the skeleton of the story proves deceptive because Hart is a careful and sensitive writer.

Yes, there is something bad happening out in the North Carolina backcountry, but The Last Child focuses always on the people affected by the disappearance of Alyssa Merrimon and the catastrophic effect of her loss on her twin, Johnny, on her distraught mother, and on the weary Clyde Hunt, the detective in charge of the initial investigation.

The portrait of brave, troubled Johnny is particularly well done, as is the companion portrait of his unhappy friend, Jack, but even minor characters like Mrs. Merrimon’s dangerous lover and the mysterious giant Levi Freemantle are well handled. Evil is present, but it’s not around for cheap thrills. Indeed, the book ends in a sadder, more plausible, way that one is likely to anticipate.

Miloszewski’s Rage is another matter altogether. I like mysteries set in foreign countries, and Olsztyn, a Polish resort town with a multitude of lakes and seemingly wretched weather, is a locale ripe for mystery and mayhem. The investigator, Prosecutor Teodor Szacki, is cranky and over worked. He is often difficult with both his lover and his teen-aged daughter and inclined to be abrupt with innocent members of the public.

Harried by the investigation of an exceptionally cruel, if equally exceptionally creative, murder, he fails to pick up hints of serious domestic abuse and finds himself not only in bureaucratic hot water but in true physical danger. This interest in domestic violence apparently represents something new in Polish crime fiction, but that alone probably does not account for the inventively gruesome revenge plot.

The lack of nuance in Rage is too bad, because both the settling and admittedly crusty but not entirely close-minded Prosecutor Szacki are intriguing. But a strain of zestful cruelty runs throughout the novel, and to my mind, at least, too much of the momentum and impact of Rage relies on gruesome ingenuity as opposed to intelligent characterization or to a real exploration of the ethical and social issues raised by the plot.

Oddly enough, in this case, The Last Child, a novel with a bona fide serial killer, if one kept mostly off stage, turns out to be a moving and subtle character study. Rage, with a much lower body count, sadly relies more on gore and sadism than on its distinctive investigator.

I wonder if I am alone in this sort of reaction or if there are other folk out there who find madly inventive and sadistic murders a dubious literary resource?


  1. Hi, Janice — I've not read Rage (and admit, with your review here, I won't be seeking it out) but I've been a big fan of Hart's work, and I couldn't agree more with your comments here on The Last Child, which was really a beautiful work of fiction, one of my own favorites in recent years.

    Thoughtful commentary here, generally--good points throughout.

  2. Thanks. I'd actually like to read another of Miloszewski's novels to see if one would be more subtle. I just had the interesting experience of reading Hart's first novel, King of Lies. It had a brilliant opening but I found the characters much less interesting and more stereotyped than in the later The Last Child. Clearly, Hart did not rest on his laurels!

  3. An insightful column, Janice. I met John Hart a few weeks ago at a book festival here in Jackson, and wound up sitting beside him in the signing tent after we'd both been on panels. One of the first things I mentioned to him was that The Last Child was one of my favorite novels. I read it long ago and it's stayed on my mind ever since. I confess that I've not read King of Lies.

  4. Several years ago I read Every Dead Thing by John Connolly & have been sorry ever since. I could empathize with the characters at the beginning, but by the end of the book, there had been so many murders & so much blood that it became repetitive & I stopped caring.

  5. Your article caused me to ponder. I dislike movies with gore for gore’s sake although I liked the Hannibal Lector films. Some of the Lincoln Rhyme books are sometimes a bit much but they’re generally brilliant. And yet…

    I was told once I don’t understand evil by a guy who committed murder and then suicide, and that may be true. But non-gratuitous violence can suggest something so evil, so vile and wicked that we want it rooted out. Thus I find it easier to handle a mystery thriller in which the killer is finally taken in hand, than a horror novel where evil never dies.

    Does that make sense? And does it mean I’m alone or not in this viewpoint?

  6. I find gratuitous violence and gore disgusting. And, to be honest, I think that most of it is (both gore and violence) gratuitous, a way to pad out the book, let us know what a strong stomach the writer has and, frankly, substitute for good characterization and plot. (One of the books I reviewed for the Edgars was rampant with gratuitous, detailed gore: I called it "violence porn" and, after giving it the lowest rating I could, said I would have given it a lower rating if possible.) It's one of the few things that will make me toss a book across the room. And I'm disturbed by the idea that some people really LIKE gratuitous violence and gore, that it turns them on...

  7. Excellent article. Good insights.

  8. I share your enthusiasm for The Last Child. In many ways, it seems like a terribly dark novel, but I think it ends up affirming courage, loyalty, and other things that make life worthwhile--even hope. Like others who have commented, I don't enjoy gore and excessive violence; I think a mystery can have plenty of exciting, gripping action and suspense without them. And even in cozy mysteries, where we seldom witness murders or get deluged with gory details, I'll admit I don't like it when the body count gets too high--for example, when several minor characters are killed off just to create the sense that the protagonist is in danger. (We all know the protagonist is going to make it anyway, especially if the protagonist is the first-person narrator.) Every murder is a terrible thing that touches many lives; every time a character is murdered, I think we need to acknowledge that.


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