Friday, July 24, 2009

Escape Clause

"How dark is too dark?" by Tim Maleeny

As a writer I'd say anything goes, but as a reader I'll admit that much of crime fiction is too dark for me. The real world at high noon is dark enough to scare me on most days, so when I choose a book I'm typically looking for an escape.

An adventure, a roller coaster ride. Unapologetic entertainment and distraction from the shadows all around us. That's one of the main reasons I bring a book everywhere. Think of a good book as my pulp-and-glue-powered flashlight, shining some light on the human condition and putting even the scariest realities into stark perspective.

I find I'm a better reader if the writer's voice has some irreverence, an undercurrent of humor. For me, too dark means too serious, because I think the real world is just as absurd as it is scary. So make the bad guy quirky or charming. Have the good guy be slightly neurotic. Drive the tension in the dialogue through humor. Let off some stream as you turn up the heat. The books that are wall-to-wall dark tend to sit on my shelves unread, perhaps because they don't reflect my own skewed perspective on the world.

However, I wouldn't be much of a reader or writer if I couldn't embrace contradictions, so as I thought about this question I realized there are a number of dark books that I would recommend unreservedly. Books with tension but very little release. Ghost stories that chill your fingers as you turn the pages. And what I realized was this: the darker the book, the more critical it was for me that the writing be exceptional. Silence of the Lambs is an easy example. Not a lot of humor or optimism in that book, but the pacing, attention to detail and rich characterizations propel you forward in a way that entertains even as the subject matter horrifies. Somehow the disturbing details didn't seem gratuitous. But many serial killer books that came later were pale derivatives, tales of horror devoid of any craft. Books like those made me feel enervated instead of energized. They offered no escape.

But my ability to sit in the dark for long hours is definitely stronger if there are occasional flashes of light. I recently read two historical crime novels which take place in Russia. One of them was brilliant, David Benioff's novel City of Thieves. Because of the friendship between the two protagonists and the preposterous nature of their mission, the book is funny, poignant and wildly entertaining. But the backdrop of the war, the casual cruelty of the Nazis and the daily horrors of the siege of Leningrad all wash over you in a way that is much more powerful than any work of nonfiction. This is a book you want to read, as opposed to a book that fails to entertain as it educates.

By contrast, the other book I read, which shall not be mentioned by title, was a good story in need of a great editor. It was at least a hundred pages too long, but even worse, it took itself way too seriously. It was trying hard to shock or scare me, but as a reader I could see the writer's big shoes sticking out from under the curtain long before he ever jumped out to say boo. By the end I just didn't care enough about the characters, because their lack of humanity made them two dimensional. And I think, in many ways, it's the lighter moments in life, however brief, that reveal our humanity.

But enough of all this literary claptrap, here I am taking things way too seriously. It's too dark in here, so excuse me while I go find a good book that is also a great escape.


Cheryl said...

Not at all surprised you mentioned the need for that touch of humor to help ease the tension.
Another author that falls into this category is J. A. Konrath. I enjoy his Jack Daniels series, but if you look closely they are extremely violent. The humor makes it possible to read and enjoy the books without going through a psychological trauma.
Keep doing what you're doing. It works for me.

Shane Gericke said...

Well said, Tim. I love dark humor in thrillers and mysteries, because it's fun for me to read, and helps release the tension from a well-crafted scene. (And cop jokes are the best.) Yet, so many writers who attempt humor try too hard, and the jokes stick out like a Red Skelton bit.

Jen said...

I've often commented that the difference between a great crime fiction novel and an amazing crime fiction novel is the use of good humor. And writers use it in so many different forms: dry humor, sarcastic humor, lol humor. A reader doesn't want to find him/herself up on a bridge looking down if they're reading too much dark, serious crime fiction.

And at that same notion, forcing humor doesn't work any better. Or what I term "idiot humor." I got over the "idiot humor" well around third grade. It isn't funny anymore.

Some folks who I think nail the humor quite well: Robert Crais, Chris Grabenstein, Louise Penny, Alafair Burke, Thomas Holland, Craig Johnson, James Lee Burke...

Sometimes it's the inclusion of just one character who supplies that comic release and sometimes it's woven throughout. But humor does make a difference.

Fun post, Tim. Thanks!!