Friday, May 19, 2017

How Gritty Are My Mysteries?

My panel topic at Bouchercon 2015 was “How Much Grit Do I Want in My Mystery?” Violent content, bloody images, sexuality, and tough language come to mind when I hear the word “grit.” Gritty movies are rated R. One of Merriam-Webster’s definitions of gritty is “harsh and unpleasant.” 

Raymond Chandler, Michael Connelly, Patricia Cornwell, Robert Crais, Henning Mankell, and Ruth Rendell are just a few of our renowned authors who write the “dark stuff”—noir. And they’re really good at it.

I watch many TV shows where violence runs rampant. The British and Swedish do it best—Luther is breathtakingly violent; the characters in the riveting Swedish drama, Beck, don’t flinch at a little blood; the American Animal Kingdom had a mild, if menacing, start but by the end of the season the violence had reached a nearly unbearable level. Sexuality and language are a natural part of these stories— the characters leave the bedroom door wide open and aren’t likely to say, “Oh, fudge!”

I love these depictions of a grim reality, whether in print or on screen. But do I want to write tales with a “darkness of the spirit?”

No, no, a thousand times, no! Maybe spending so much time with my characters and story makes me fear all that darkness. I write cozies, edgy cozies, but cozies all the same. My violence happens off-page and is minimally described. In one story, I have the killer picking up a weapon and using it. But I left the aftermath to the reader’s vivid imagination. In another story, a character gets killed in a pretty horrific way, but all I mention is the murder weapon. Again, I let my readers fill in the blanks. No gritty details. Sometimes a well-chosen word here or there will paint a complete picture.

My characters love sex and love to talk about sex but when they “get right down to the real nitty-gritty” (see how well the song title fits the subject?) they go off-page. I may sprinkle a mild expletive—or two—into the dialogue. My readers object to profanity and I must respect their wishes. There are ways to suggest swearing and mystery author Naomi Hirahara is so skilled at this that you know the exact word she’s not using. Another mystery author, F.M. Meredith, has this to say about the lack of salty language in her Rocky Bluff P.D. series: “Oh, the characters do cuss, I just don’t quote them.”

But Merriam-Webster has an alternative definition of gritty: having or showing a lot of courage and determination.

My main character, Hazel Rose, doesn’t consider herself to be brave and accepts her crime-solving missions with great reluctance. But, once committed, she will run a killer to earth. Mystery writers, regardless of how noir-ish or cozy their story is, want a determined detective, one with an abundance of “true grit.” It’s true grit that unites crime writers as we restore justice to our fictional worlds.

And it’s true grit that I want in my mysteries.

Back to the Bouchercon panel: Laura DiSilverio, Frankie Bailey, Lynn Cahoon, and I had a lively discussion about grit in mysteries and pretty much covered the points I’ve made in this post. Author Lise McClendon moderated. Here’s a non-very-good photo of us: 

Writers, weigh in. How do you feel about grit in your mysteries?


Marja said...

I prefer a mystery with a little humor and less blood and guts. Language? There are ways around foul language. I don't enjoy a wishy washy story, but as far as grit, keep it mild. This is not to say I don't read some pretty gritty stories. : ) Excellent post!

Linda Thorne said...

What a fun post to read. It's so well written, I was sort of hoping to see more. And good idea to tie in John Wayne. Most of us have seen "True Grit."
Yes, I'm like you, I don't like to go dark like they do in the TV series, Criminal Minds. I prefer to write and read stories with most of the sex and gruesomeness off-stage. I can take raw language (as that's only words), but most of us who lean our mysteries on the cozy side are supposed to use words like "fudge" if we are alluding to someone on the verge of cursing, so I don't want to, but I do.

Beth Fine said...

Enjoyed your blogpost, especially because I had recently posted something similar on my FB page. I like the twists of a complicated plot more than in-your-face sex or gore scene. My father used to say, it's enough that the couple goes into the bedroom and closes the door. We all get it. You made me think how the Greek Chorus in tragedies took the sting out of what went on offstage. Admittedly, Willy Wonka's type of suspense and mild trickiness is about all my little psyche can deal with these days. Reality is hard enough to handle without artificial scenes popping up in my mind from a book I've read or a show I've watched. Keep up with your Cozy offerings. Who needs their hair to stand on end? Mine is thinning fast enough as I age :-)

Maggie King said...

Thank you all for commenting. I feel we need to let our readers use their imagination. But I'm on the fence about profanity. As that's the way many people express themselves, it adds an authentic touch to dialog. But I have to defer to my readers.

Paty Jager said...

Great post, Maggie! while I call my mysteries cozy, they are also grittier than cozy. I don't go into detail about the murder only the points that need to be known to help the reader make decisions about who the killer could be. I don't have my amateur sleuth and the detective do more than kiss and live together. I feel most mystery readers don't want the bedroom scenes. And I only use maybe one cuss word and that is damn. I like a bit more than a cozy but nothing as far as noir.

Maggie King said...

Paty, an editor once told me that damn and hell are acceptable. The focus is the story, the puzzle---not sex, violence, or profanity. Thanks for commenting.

Liane Spicer said...

As a reader I'm not averse to explicit language and violence in my mysteries, but I have to be in the mood for it. Sometimes it can get a little too intense; one baddie in a Florida mystery left me feeling queasy for weeks.

As an author who hasn't written mystery before my current WIP, I handle the violence and sex with a light touch. The sex in my contemporary romances is far more graphic than in my mystery, and the gory details of the violence are left to the reader's imagination in my unfinished mystery.

Maggie King said...

Liane, you make a good point when you say you have to be in the mood.

Joyce Ann Brown said...

I agree that the focus should be the story, not the sex, violence, or profanity. I just finished the third book of a cute cozy series in which sexuality between the young woman sleuth and her lover was spelled out. It seemed unnecessary and offensive to me and detracted from the story. The crime, the investigation, and the solution took a back seat.

Maggie King said...

Joyce, that takes the notion of cute cozy to edgy cozy, or perhaps just a traditional mystery. I don't think most of us need a sex primer!