Violence in fiction: what is the purpose of describing crime scenes?

(This is an update of a book review I wrote this past summer and posted on Goodreads.)

“‘They’ll want him to be mad, of course,’ Lazlo mused, not hearing me. ‘The doctors here, the newspapers, the judges; they’d like to think that only a madman would shoot a five-year-old girl in the head. It creates certain . . . difficulties, if we are forced to accept that our society can produce sane men who commit such acts.’” (Caleb Carr, The Alienist, page 33)

This passage resonates with me and seems relevant, not only for the book’s major themes, but for our time as well. How many times is a terrible crime committed and the immediate response is: oh, that person must be crazy, insane, mentally ill!

No one likes to think that someone who is sane could do something that heinous.

That implies that the criminal is one of us, like us.

That creates the possibility that we could become like him.

That means we’re capable of doing the heinous act we’ve just condemned.

And that means we’re capable of doing anything.

Disturbing, indeed.

Even though I reject the idea that society alone produces evil within our hearts, it’s still a disturbing idea that I could commit an evil crime. When I examine my own heart, trying to see how I would behave if I didn’t have the restraining, regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, it’s alarming what I imagine myself capable of doing.

Lazlo is the alienist of the book’s title, a psychiatrist in a time when psychiatry was viewed with suspicion, a non-scientific, disreputable profession. (As if it’s ever been completely accepted by everyone!) He is called in to investigate a horrific murder of a young male prostitute. Along with a ragtag assortment of other people, he works to create a profile of the murderer from the details of the murder victim’s body and circumstances.

Back when I was starting to write fiction (in high school), I heard about this novel. It was praised and I was mildly interested, but I never got around to it until now.

I’m torn on how to rate this book. On the one hand, it held my attention for the two days I spent reading it.

I enjoyed the historical details, as well as the exploration of contemporary ideas about criminal behavior, mental illness, and the intersection of the two.

The young victims are male child prostitutes, and I found the contemporary attitudes toward sex trafficking interesting to read about. It’s tragic that the United States preferred to ignore both child prostitution and the poverty that drove many kids to sell themselves. (Is the past tense truly an accurate one?) What was once some flat, impersonal facts in a history book came alive for me in Carr’s novel.

However, I disliked the detailed description of the murder victims’ bodies. It was disturbing, as it was obviously intended and needed to be. It was also necessary, given that the entire premise revolved around Lazlo & company’s attempt to profile the murderer based on the details of the murders (including the mutilated bodies).

I’m not typically squeamish. I have a high tolerance for graphic content, provided that it is there for a significant reason—showing the evils of slavery, for example, or the horrors of a death camp—and not just to be obscene for the sake of biting the thumb at would-be censors. So when I say this was detailed, I’m not being prudish; it really was disturbingly detailed.

But that raises some questions for me about this book and other murder mysteries.

Does using something as horrible as a murder for entertainment an acceptable thing? (I could apply the question to any terrible thing, such as rape, suicide, war, etc.)

Does it desensitize the reader to the horrible nature of ending another person’s life, leading to a callous attitude when confronted with it in real life?

Is there a benefit to fictionalizing crimes? Can these graphic descriptions bring our attention to the human cost of crime? Does our new awareness prompt us to act on behalf of victims or not?

Does the effect depend upon the author’s attitude or motivation?

I believe in the sanctity of life. How does this worldview affect the reading graphic descriptions of lives abused and violated? Is there enough of a positive benefit to outweigh the negative?

What does this mean for my own fiction?

I’m not sure. These are questions I’ve been bothered by since junior high school.

Add to that the very detailed nature of the victims’ bodies in this book, and I’m disturbed even more. Many of the victims are first seen after their death. They exist only as victims, not as full-fledged characters (fictionalized humans). It’s standard practice in this genre, but it has the effect of dehumanizing the victims and making me almost indifferent to their (fictional) deaths. Is this acceptable? Good? Bad? What benefit can there be in this?

I really don’t know. Thoughts?

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4 thoughts on “Violence in fiction: what is the purpose of describing crime scenes?

  1. I have to be careful when exposing myself to these things, especially now as I begin EMDR next month. I love a good whodunnit, but there is a point where the genre crosses a line and becomes voyeuristic, even though it’s fiction. You raise some very pertinent points here.

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    1. I appreciate you sharing this! Those who have experienced traumatic things should definitely be careful what they expose themselves to, whether that be detailed descriptions of violence or anything else that triggers them. Best of luck with the EMDR. I sincerely hope that it goes smoothly for you.

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