Originally posted on November 15, 2012 at 12:45 AM
Just like our taste in food our taste in reading material is apt to change over the decades and I at least, find myself reading stuff which I’d not have approached as a teenager or in my twenties. I grew up an avid science fiction reader but now spend a great deal of my recreational reading time with medical and detective fiction and if they’re combined so much the better. Currently my favorite authors appear to be Patricia Cornwell, Greg Iles, Tess Gerritsen, John Sandford, Jodi Piccoult, James Lee Burke, Karin Slaughter, Archer Mayor and pretty much anyone else male or female who write in a similar fashion to some of all of the above. I never started out to be interested in detective fiction nor did I ever particularly want to be a Dr. Why then has my reading focus shifted from spaceships and exo-sociology to crime labs and autopsy rooms?
A couple of reasons I suppose. For one thing pretty much all of the authors I’ve mentioned tend to set their novels in specific areas of the country and in most cases they are areas I like or in which I’m interested. Jodi the News Hampshire area, John Minnesota, James Lee Louisiana, Archer Vermont etc. etc. But the big draw I think is the adrenaline rush of reading about folks in extreme danger and how they overcome it, are rescued from it or how their own unfortunate demise contributes eventually to someone else’s rescue.
Much (very much) of the suspense literature I read is disproportionately devoted to the misfortune of women; women being killed, stabbed, strangled, bludgeoned and so on, women being raped or subjected to sexual slavery, women being imprisoned for long periods of time, sometimes perpetually in cellars, attics, boxes, holes in the ground, women being tortured and mutilated in the most unspeakable ways. I must confess I don’t like this much in myself, my propensity to read this stuff. Of course I’m always cheering for the investigators, forensic scientists, cops on the beat and of course the victim herself but do I really need to spend so much time among entrails and torture chambers?
I think a problem we face as writers and readers is we appear to be losing our ability to build suspense without murder or sexual mayhem. Another way to say that is inflicted misfortune is an easy base on which to build a scary book. I don’t believe that I’d be able to write the sort of sadistic murder stuff I frequently read even if I want to. I think the reason I tend to write a lot about gender issues and various trans varieties in particular is because I can build tension through risking my protagonist’s discovery or dealing with the consequences of flouting perceived social norms.
Obviously not everyone wants to read books on gender issues but aren’t there some other ways to build suspense without cutting up people? Ghosts are a faithful standby and needn’t always be deadly but haven’t most of the changes on ghostly appearances been wrong? The feeling of being pursued can certainly excite the nape Follicles and chill the spine. Journeys of extreme difficulty or explorations through strange or weird environments can likewise excite. In what other ways may we employ our Drs Isles and Linton and Scarpetta? How use our Lucas Davenports, Greg Flowers’s or Dave Robicheaus?
What other things can scare, excite, grip us to the point that the book sticks to the hand till the back cover is reached? What do you think? Am I alone out here and is there a problem? Are there alternatives you’d choose if only they were available? Let me know.