Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Distant Roar of Violence

By Mary Reed and Eric Mayer
Guest bloggers

Our guests are the authors of the John the Lord Chamberlain historical mysteries. Visit their website for more information about their work.

Eight For Eternity is darker then the other novels in our series, even more so than Five For Silver, which was set during the Justianaic plague of 542, beginning with a man rescued alive from a pile of victims and including a character who dances with the dead.

We tend to write murder mysteries without a lot of blood. Murder is a messy business but not all mystery readers or writers want to dwell on that reality. Many prefer to concern themselves with the intellectual puzzle resulting from the physical murder.

So generally we keep gruesome events off the page, and those which must be mentioned for reasons of the plot are dealt with briefly. But when we decided to set our latest book during the Nika Riots in 532 we knew it would be necessary to describe the terror and horror inhabitants of Constantinople experienced for days as the city was torn apart by murder, looting, arson, and other crimes committed by mobs seeking to overthrow Emperor Justinian.

How to convey the mayhem without departing too far from the usual tone of the series? We solved the conundrum by placing many scenes at a distance from the rioting, behind the palace walls or several streets away. The violence is depicted as a kind of continual dull, distant roar -- a menacing rumble of an anguished populace gone mad -- with occasional crescendos of noise conveying the menace of mobs running wild as the city turns on itself.

Against that dark aural background we conveyed the horrors being perpetrated by using vignettes described with sparing details, sometimes only seen in passing, but always suggesting worse – a living human torch, a curtain of legs formed by a number of dead men hung from a balcony. This seemed to us to be a strong enough method of suggesting incidents of life and death in a city racked with violence.

History tells us that 30,000 rioters were slaughtered in the Hippodrome in one battle, but it is impossible to describe so many deaths. It is more effective to show individual horrors, one at a time.

There is only a single scene where slaughter is front and center, and that is a brief account of a pitched street, or rather alley, battle between imperial troops and rioters. Neither of us having been in such a situation, we attempted to describe what happens in that brief battle as experienced by Felix, a palace guard, in an almost detached manner, given in such circumstances fighters act from instinct and training and there is no time to think about maneuvers.

We did, however, set the stage for a book in which countless, mostly unseen, people would die, with a prologue from the point of view of a condemned man on his way to the gallows. We therefore dwelled at some length on the terror of death before any killing began.

We now throw open the discussion. Perhaps you agree it is not necessary to go into minute descriptions of blood and pain to convey this type of hellish setting, or do you favor more gore?


signlady217 said...

If you can convey the concepts you want to without the gore, then I say great. Many people see/hear enough about that in their everyday lives, so if it can be avoided occasionally I think it's a good thing.

Y'all are "new to me", so these are now on my TBR list. Can't wait.

Chris V. said...

Sounds like another great historical. Congrats!

Jim said...

I found the treatment of the riots in Eight to be very effective. They were always there -- in the background -- sometimes just a block or two away -- but always a looming menace, ever-threatening, almost as if the mob was a particularly dangerous and deranged character in the novel. And those occasions where the violence comes center stage were riveting reminders that the threat and danger were not merely theoretical, but could be quite real and quite bloody.

Sandra Parshall said...

Mary and Eric want me to let those who have commented know their responses are appreciated.

I find this subject of special interest because I don't believe in glossing over the violence in the world, yet I don't enjoy -- and I know many others don't enjoy -- reading gruesome descriptions of gore and mayhem. As Mary and Eric demonstrate so well, it's possible to convey the truth about violence without being overly graphic.

Julia Buckley said...

I am extremely squeamish about blood and violence. I won't watch horror or war movies because of it. So in books, I find that a small hint of violence will prompt my imagination to do the rest.

Interesting post! Good luck with the book, Eric and Mary!

kathy d. said...

I agree with Julia on this. I don't watch violent, war or horror movies--or even, mysteries if it goes into gore and blood.

The same is true of books. I don't read books in which I know there will be torture, gratuitous violence, blood and gore. And I don't see the point.

To me the best books are the ones where the body was shot in the woods or in another room and the story is the puzzle of finding the culprit, developing the characters, good dialogue.

To me, Donna Leon does this very well with a minimum ov violence. Or Sara Paretsky.

There are certainly other types of mysteries, many of which are great. But if there is too much violence, sadism, psychological torture, even being inside the mind of a psychopath, I won't read the book. Or, as in Steig Larsson's very good books, I skip passages.

I have stopped reading some authors, because of this or never picked up their books.

I find this is truer of women reader friends than male readers who seem to be able to read anything, although to each her/his own taste. And reading is a matter of taste.