Room 101 with Steven Dunne

The author of Reeper and Deity tells us what sets his teeth on edge in Crime Ficiton.

1. Gratuitous Violence and Torture

The nature of crime writing means that we deal with some of the baser instincts of the human condition. In real life people are killed, sometimes in shocking ways and while I think it is important that writers reflect and report some of the terrible things people do to their victims it is completely unnecessary to document murder and its method in graphic detail. This is particularly distasteful when it comes to scenes of “live” torture and murder. Dwelling on a victim’s suffering is nothing more than voyeuristic titillation and immediately reveals a writer without the skills to grip the reader unless using stomach-churning shocks. As a thriller writer, I don’t shy away from violent crime, even the death of children, but my victims die for a reason, often quickly and almost always ‘off-camera’ and there would have to be a reason far more compelling than entertainment for it to be otherwise.

2. Over-emotional Coppers

Policemen and detectives are not robots and the things they see in the course of their work must take their toll. We see this in the assortment of behavioural clichés they are often given – heavy drinking, a tendency to rule-breaking, fraught personal relationships to name a few. If done with a light touch, one or all of these tropes can be justified but there is a balance to be struck.

But while the nature of the work must engender some level of existential crisis, there is a limit and extremes of emotion are to be avoided or the reader loses faith in their ability to do the job. Anger and physical violence immediately turn me off a detective unless they’re an inexperienced DC. But worst of all is crying. In my humble opinion, investigating officers should not be getting in touch with their emotions, certainly never in the middle of a case. With any serious level of experience, officers would know to exercise self-control and though we writers can show that it’s not always easy, without it the character loses all credibility for me.

3. Unrealistic Dialogue

I do get dismayed when I see conversations that just wouldn’t happen simply to inform or underscore plot points to the reader. (‘So what you’re saying is…’) Most of us have what is termed an ‘internal monologue.’ This is an inner voice which is governed by our thoughts and experiences and means that in work situations experienced police officers, for instance, wouldn’t stand around explaining aspects of procedure to each other that they already know and have internalised. The same applies to other protagonists in the thriller genre – forensic scientists, doctors, paramedics and of course, the villains. They are the worst offenders in poor thrillers, taking the time to explain to each other, for the benefit of the reader, what they’ve been doing and what they’re about to do and why.

It requires skill and subtlety to provide thriller readers with the information they need but let’s not forget why people read our novels. They want to crack the mystery and are on constant alert for clues of any kind – they don’t mind being made to commit and get great satisfaction from working out what’s being referred to by characters. Writers who spoonfeed them this information are doing fans of our genre a disservice.

So there you have it! Which of these pet hates, 1, 2 or 3, should make it into Room 101 or should perhaps all make it, or none at all? You decide! Share your thoughts below.

2 thoughts on “Room 101 with Steven Dunne

  1. Steven Dunne

    I couldn’t agree more Margaret. Your point about having access to the thoughts of the killer is also well-made. Too often we are ‘treated’ to a first person insight of a sick and twisted mind and its reduction of victims to mere conduits for their pleasure.

  2. Margaret

    I agree that gratuitous violence is lazy and inexcusable in a writer, but too often the thoughts and motivations of killers are featured in novels,while the victims become mere ciphers. In showing the fear and suffering of the victims of crime, we give them substance, and allow them to be heard.