Is Anything Really Taboo
In Today’s Crime Fiction?

I am on book tour in Michigan today, so excuse me if I don’t answer quickly to comments. In meantime, I wrote this recently for the great online mag Criminal Element. (Which coincided with a terrific review for our new Louis Kincaid thriller The Damage Done.) Thanks to my editor at CE, Adam!) 

By PJ Parrish

Taboo. Off limits. That’s a no-no. Don’t go there. Oh man, you can’t do that.

That’s what mystery and thriller writers often hear. Be it from editors, reviewers or readers — especially readers — there are things we aren’t supposed to write about. Things that no one who’s looking for escapist fiction, wants to read about, things that are too sensitive, too controversial, too just plain ick-factor to deal with. After twenty-odd years in publishing and with thirteen thrillers under my belt and a new one just published, this one question never fails to intrigue me.

What is too much? How far can you push the envelope? Where is the line when readers will turn on you? And, maybe most important, as a writer, should you care?

We often hear there are some things you should never do in mysteries and thrillers. Maybe it’s because some folks believe the old boundaries of genre fiction still bind us. Maybe it’s because we’re all hyper-aware of the problems of finding audiences in a world of shrinking shelf space and the blat-blare-honk! of indie-publishing.  Maybe it’s just vestigial adherence to the sad old rule that genre fiction should know its limits. Here’s just a few of the no-no’s I know:

  • Don’t deal with abused children because readers can’t take it.
  • Don’t write about religion because it’s too personal.
  • Don’t write about politics because it’s too divisive and partisan.
  • Steer clear of graphic violence and sex.
  • And never, ever, kill an animal.

I’ve been thinking about this topic since the release of our new book THE DAMAGE DONE. This book heavily stresses the series-long character arc of our protagonist, a biracial PI ex-cop who is desperate to get back to wearing a badge again. Louis Kincaid is mysteriously recruited for a cold-case squad of the Michigan State Police run by an old nemesis who ten years before caused Louis to lose his badge. The “why” behind Louis’s new job is seminal to the plot and tests Louis’s faith in law enforcement.

Faith…

That is the underground railroad that propels the plot of THE DAMAGE DONE. And that means dealing with religion. It is in the foreground when Louis is called upon to solve the murder of a mega-church minister. But in the background, the slow percolation of a second cold case — the remains of two boys are found in an abandoned copper mine —  boils up memories of Louis’s childhood slide through the foster system and tests his complex notion of faith.  Faith in what? Or in whom?

Religion isn’t easy to write about because like anything of import, you can get, well, preachy. But, while many of our characters are people of deep faith, it was important with this story that we didn’t dictate what the reader concludes. And that, I think is how mystery and thrillers can illuminate the social questions of our weird times — deal with hard issues but never be didactic. I’ve been working my way through the John D. MacDonald books for the last year.  In Condominium, MacDonald took on shady real estate developments and crooked politicians. In One More Sunday, he tackles televangelists and moral ambiguity — but never loses sight of telling a ripping good yarn.  Luckily for me, I finished my own novel about faith before I started this one.

I read a crime novel recently by an Edgar-winning writer. The writing was elegant, the plot set-up tantalyzing. I really liked the protag. But about halfway through, I found myself getting irritated. Why? Because the writer started shouting about the devastation of the environment and it was drowning out the story. I don’t like folks banging on my door trying to teach me about Jesus. I don’t like crime writers hitting me over head with a thematic two-by-four about baby seals.

Likewise, I get annoyed by bad women-in-peril books. Now sexual predators are a fixture of crime fiction, and some authors handle the subject graphically. (Karin Slaughter’s Kisscut comes to mind.). But if you can’t bring anything new to the subject, if your female characters are cliched victims, then don’t go there, especially in the red-hot passions of the #metoo movement.  Reality is far more potent than most anything you can put on the page today.

Yes, we should write about politics, sexual violence,  and yes, we even need to kill animals if the story needs it. (Although I had to put down a book by Minette Walters, one of my favorite writers, because she wrote about torturing cats and I had ten cats at the time.). But you have to deal with a touchy subject always with the idea that it must organically support the story.

With our book A Thousand Bones,  we dealt with the devastating rape of the protagonist. Our editor asked us if we really wanted to “go there.” After much agonizing we decided the heroine’s character arc wouldn’t be believable without including the violent act. In the same book, the heroine, a rookie cop, commits an act of vengeance against her rapist. We thought long and hard about the ethics of a law enforcement officer pushing the limits but decided to leave the incident in. We got some emails on this from readers claiming a “a good cop” would never do this. I was at a signing and a man came up holding the book. He said, “I’m a retired Detroit police captain and I need to talk to you about how you ended this story.”  I braced myself. Then he said, “I would have done the same thing she did.”

Not every decision about “taboos” is as difficult. We got a thoughtful email from a regular reader about our book An Unquiet Grave telling us she found the profanity off-putting. We write a hard-boiled police procedurals and thrillers, so we have to reflect the reality of the street and the station house. But we came realize we had become too reliant on profanity to convey intensity of character. It can be a crutch, a poor stand-in for powerful dialogue. Yes, our books still have profanity, but we think about each word we use. Which is sort of what you should do with non-profanity, no?

In the end, after thirteen books and twenty years of crime writing, I’ve decided there is only one real taboo — that the message never overwhelm the plot and characters. The story must always win out.

 

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

19 thoughts on “Is Anything Really Taboo
In Today’s Crime Fiction?

  1. I agree, Kris. If the taboo situation fits the plot, and the bad language fits the character, I go for it … with forethought and caution. I have some characters with deep faith, but I keep their religion in the background. It’s part of them, not their sole purpose for existing. The one time I killed a cat I cried for weeks afterward. Oddly enough, no reader has ever mentioned it, because the scene fit the plot. This sweet cat’s death was the driving force to get my heroine (antiheroine at times) to act. She’s so street smart and tough. Growing up on the street, enduring some pretty horrific situations in her life, it takes a lot to shake her. Would I ever do it again? Hope not. 🙂

    Have fun at your signings!

    • Oh my. (Re dead cat). I killed a dog in book 2 but he was found dead so I didn’t have to do the dirty deed on camera.

  2. Great post, PJ. Your comment about the writer who harped on the environment is a real pet peeve of mine. Whether it’s a novel, a cartoon, a movie, whatever, you can make your point without “preaching” about it. If not, at least have the good grace to counteract your “preacher” with characters who are turned off by him/her (as would be the case in real life).

    I think it’s fine to use your characters to espouse your own beliefs and priorities, but at the point the story focuses more on the writer’s agenda than advancing the plot, I’m out.

    • That’s a good idea tom to have a character who acts as a counterweight. In my new book I have an atheist guy who has a call in radio show. He is an early red herring suspect but more important he provides an interesting counterpoint in the ongoing dialogue

  3. I get called on most for language, but it’s my characters speaking, not me (and I think I the number of f-bombs in that 100,000K book — three, and all in thoughts.) Another reader jumped on my for using the Lord’s name in vain. It’s the characters. The “Lord” in question isn’t even “my” deity. I avoid politics, simply because I really hate what politics does to people and avoid discussion in my own life as well. Barbara Parker told me I couldn’t kill a cat. I needed something to happen to those cats as a major character reveal, so I changed things so they both recovered instead of just one.
    The biggest talking point in reviews of my books is the sex. Too much, not enough. Because a lot of my books are romantic suspense, I get mystery readers who read them, and they don’t want the sex At All. Romance readers expect it.
    So I just keep writing the books I want to write and do what is right for the characters.

    • Huh. We could write a looooong blog on how much sex is too much in thrillers and mysteries. Unless it’s romantic suspense I say less is more. Preferably even going the fade to black beach gambit in From Here to Eternity.

      • I leave the sex off the page in my mysteries. But my mystery followers often read the romantic suspenses, too. I finally changed all the covers of my Blackthorne series to make it clear that these books are NOT my mysteries. But even romance readers have their own preferences for what’s on the page. No pleasing everyone.

  4. Kris-
    Very solid post!
    I share your aversion to preaching both as a reader and an author. I write suspense-thrillers involving medical personnel, action and drama. Based in decades of frontline emergency medicine experience I am a passionate supporter of medics, nurses, and emergency/critical care professionals. I guard against soapbox broadcasting my respect and admiration and focus instead on showing authentic, credible characters and behavior…readers can form their own impression. I believe readers of fiction want great stories not lectures or propaganda.
    Thought provoking post – thanks!
    Tom
    PS – what does “the blat-blare-honk! of indie-publishing” mean?” It made me laugh (and I’m unabashedly indie) but not sure what it describes (?)

    • Blat honk reference was about trying to get “heard” in indie publishing given the sheer volume. There were almost a million self published books available on Amazon last year.

  5. Kris, I’m half way through Damage Done right now. You’ve done a fine balancing act with it–not too much, not too little.

    B/c you develop your characters as unique individuals and treat them with respect (even if they don’t deserve it!), they come across to the reader as real people, not as vehicles for a message. That makes all the difference.

    TKZers, check out Damage Done! A worthwhile read!

    • Geez. Thanks for the fine words Debbie. Strangely we didn’t set out to write a book so intensely about faith. The theme emerged about a third of the way through and we enhanced it in rewrites. I have no formal religious background so it was an interesting exercise to create such characters. But I DID respect them. Even as I disagreed with them.

  6. You hit several great points. I think the biggest is good story telling. A good author should be able to have a character care about the environment without sounding like a Greenpeace infomercial.

    Language seems to be a biggie. There are many authors who rely on F-bombs for dialog. Well placed, in a well done character, no one notices. Twelve per page and half of chapter 7 and they do. In the end, I think profanity becomes a crutch, one that turns me off. Graphic sex scenes are the same way. There is a line between romantic, steamy, erotic, and porn. My line may be different than yours. Sex also goes with the genre. I don’t want to be surprised by a three page graphic tryst while I am looking who killed Ms. Wallace.

    In the end, given today’s world, if your writing has feeling and you express your opinion, you are going to offend someone. Tell a good story and be true to your characters. And if a priest ends up killing dogs, make sure he comes to a bad end.

    • Ha! If the priest kills a dog….

      I agree about F-bombs. Yeah I use them in writing but each is always well considered. More often than not I take them out in rewriting.

  7. Nothing seems to be taboo on television. Have you seen the show “How to Get Away With Murder” that airs on Thursday nights? The first time I saw that show, I nearly choked on the cherry in my mocktail. Seriously, though, I think sometimes it’s good to push a few writing boundaries and let a little skillful thunder rumble every now and then. Be bold when others are fearful. No matter what you write, you’ll never please everyone.

    • “You’ll never please everyone…”

      Nor should you try. You write your own story and be true to your voice. But as others here have said profanity can easily become a crutch for folks who automatically equate it with gritty style.

      • I avoid profanity in my own writing; however, Chuck Wendig handles colorful language with aplomb. I agree that you have to be true to your own voice.

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