Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Some Like It Hot

Sandra Parshall

Do you take the temperature of the books you read?

I can’t help classifying crime novels by the amount of emotional heat they generate. Some stories have clever plots but require a minimum of personal involvement on the reader’s part. Those are the cool books. Others plunge you deep into the characters’ trouble-filled lives, and “hot” is the only way to describe the experience.

Cozies are, by their very nature, warm to slightly cool. Humor, especially when it borders on farce, has a cooling effect because it distances the story from the real world, where the events surrounding murder are seldom funny. That’s not a knock on cozies and humorous mysteries but an acknowledgment of their purpose: to entertain and divert without leaving the reader feeling wrung-out.

You might think thrillers would all be at the opposite temperature extreme, but that’s not the case. In techno-thrillers, the fate of the entire world may be at stake, but the story often remains an intellectual exercise rather than an emotional experience. For me, political suspense usually feels just as cold as a techno-thriller, which is why I avoid crime novels with flags on the covers.

The kind of book I enjoy most gets to me at a visceral level and lives up to its hype as “riveting from start to finish.” I don’t want to merely read about the characters’ ride through hell; I want to go along on the trip.

Tess Gerritsen at her best pulls me into her stories and leaves me breathless. Thomas Cook’s novels are quieter but intense and spellbinding.

Lisa Gardner and Greg Iles both write hot but include patches of cool writing that provide a few minutes of relief and relaxation before they heat up again.

Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine’s books are variable, but some of her psychological suspense novels, such as Going Wrong, The Lake of Darkness, and The Bridesmaid, are intensely creepy and gripping. Definitely hot, even though her prose is spare and might look cool at first glance.

P.D. James is usually cool all the way, although she has written a few passages from victims’ viewpoints that can raise the temperature of a book as well as the reader’s pulse rate.

Stephen White is a cool writer whose main character, a psychologist like White himself, is always thinking and reasoning.

Elizabeth George’s writing is warm when she’s in Barbara Havers’s viewpoint or that of a victim, but when she switches to Tommy Lynley or Simon St. James, the writing goes cold and cerebral even when they’re agonizing over the women they love.

When a book has a strong impact on me, I don’t usually slow down to wonder how the writer achieved that effect, but I’ll go back later to analyze it and, I hope, learn something I can use to make my own writing powerful. “Hot” writing explores primal emotions: love, hate, fear, jealousy, longing. Sensory details abound – readers always know how a character’s body, not just her mind, is reacting to an experience, and we always know how her world looks, smells, tastes, feels, sounds. Hot writing isn’t necessarily more violent than a cool story, but menace lurks everywhere, and when violence does erupt it is gut-wrenching and real, with nothing left out or sanitized. This is the kind of writing that reminds you how unpleasant murder is.

The genre of crime fiction has something for everybody. Books written with cool semi-detachment are as popular as those that shake you and leave you drained. Some readers, myself included, welcome an occasional cool book after a steady diet of high-emotion tales, and reading a warm cozy now and then resets my concept of what is normal so I don’t begin believing that everybody in the world is sick and vengeful. I’m not sure that many devoted cozy readers cross over to the dark side, though.

To each his own. But when I open the cover of a new book, nothing pleases me more than a blast of heat from its pages.

Do you see a cool/warm/hot pattern in your own reading?


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sandy, my whole temperature range is different. I distance and start to skim when I hit the tortured dark stuff, like the inside of a serial killer's head, as much as when I run into pages of tech detail. What warms me to the bones is a sense of connection with the characters, like Judge Deborah Knott's family or Sharon McCone's circle of friends. That's what makes me laugh and cry and reread over and over and lose myself in the world of a book. The too-cozy cozy, for me, doesn't do it when it comes off cutesy or self-conscious.

Sandra Parshall said...

I almost never enjoy books that go into the killer's POV -- the exceptions being the Dexter books and Ruth Rendell's novels. When most writers attempt to write from a lunatic's POV, it just comes off as ludicrous and it makes me cringe. I want the same thing you do, Liz: connection with the characters. The closer, the better. But I don't normally want to get that close to a crazed killer, and those books often repel me rather than drawing me in.