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?