Saturday, December 4, 2010

From Michael - How Much Is Too Much?

It’s great to have you here on Criminal Minds. It seems to me that in recent years, we’ve pushed the boundaries (mostly in good ways) further and further in crime writing. We can be – and often are – bloodier, grittier, and more “realistic” than ever before. Whether or not this is actually the case, I wonder what – if anything – is too much for you when writing a novel? What from your job as a forensic specialist shouldn’t – or perhaps can’t – go into fiction, as far as you’re concerned? Or can it all go in, plus some?

Good question. I feel very strongly about the current trend of getting bloodier and bloodier. I don’t mind blood (obviously) but I don’t see that hours and weeks and months of torture really add that much to the story. I wrote my first book, Trace Evidence (under the name Elizabeth Becka) as a reaction: my killer doesn’t harm a hair on his victim’s heads, until he encases their feet in cement and drops them into the freezing Cuyahoga. Any way to die is terrible if you really think about it.

I also have a visceral reaction to this trend because it’s almost always females suffering these sick fates. It’s as if the publishing industry/entertainment industry/American public believe that only beautiful young women—and I mean young, "Criminal Minds" has had high school age victims…I sear I would stop watching that show if Joe Mantegna wasn’t so damn attractive—are ‘worthy’ of a serial killer’s attention. I should feel relieved that I’m old enough to be quite, quite safe, but I don’t. I can’t help but feel insulted, both for myself and on behalf of anyone who’s homely, fat, over 25 or male. We’re not even worth killing.

It’s also not realistic. I work in a very low-crime city now, but I did spend five years at a coroner’s office in a large city, so I think I have a fairly good idea of the typical homicide. In the typical homicide, two people got mad at each other. If not that, then someone’s had a falling out related to the drug trade. No complicated, drawn-out methods of murder and most victims are male. After approximately 120 homicides per year for 5 years, I recall exactly one case of attempted torture (slashes to the feet and groin). I say ‘attempted’ because the victim was already dead, and quite past feeling anything.

Of course, the typical homicide is also not interesting enough to write a whole novel about, either, and there’s nothing wrong with extending to ‘the range of extreme possibility’ as Fox Mulder would say. Fiction almost always deals with an atypical event, after all. I get that. And there are plenty of torture killers—BTK, Robert Anderson, Robert Hansen. I suppose like just about any other facet of a story, it comes down to personal preference.
As for other forensic information, I never want to help people commit crimes. So far this hasn’t really been an issue. I really don’t know of a ‘perfect’ way to kill someone, so I haven’t been tempted to write it. Usually anything I’m writing about is readily available on the internet, so I don’t feel I’m giving anything away. In Evidence of Murder I use an ‘untraceable’ way of killing, but one that requires specialized equipment that most people would not have access to. I hope that instead I show readers that any crime can be thwarted by skill, unexpected knowledge, or coincidence. So you’re better off not to commit one in the first place.

Lisa Black is a full time latent print examiner/CSI and the NYT bestselling author of the Theresa MacLean series, including Takeover, Evidence of Murder and the recently released Trail of Blood. Please visit her website at


Michael Wiley said...

Yes, women victims -- and children -- and especially young women. There's a history here, of course -- Bruce Willis never stood at the top of Rapunzel's tower ready to let his hair down to a rescuing princess -- but it seems to me that the taste for young and female victims, who have been deeply victimized, is just wrong. I don't like reading it, don't like writing it, am glad when others avoid writing it too. Let's hear it for homely, fat, over-25-year-old male victims.

Kelli Stanley said...

Hear, hear, Lisa!! Unfortunately, the headlines this year have, I think, spurred on a downward spiral of sensationalized, sexualized violence in fiction as well--a "torture-porn" trend.

Murder and violent crime is always ugly and horrific. Loss is always devastating. It worries me that so many people seem to have become so desensitized to the pain of others. I fear for empathy ... perhaps the most important trait for our continued survival.

Shane Gericke said...

Publishers want 'em darker and bloodier, because they think the public wants 'em that way. Perhaps that explains why crime fiction is darker and bloodier now.