Suspense vs. Violence

Back to the journey and to my final blog on Boundary Waters.

Tony Hillerman is, of course, one of the major reasons I write what I write.  He was one of the first mystery authors I discovered.  I confess that before I began to write mysteries, I didn’t really read them.  My father was a high school English teacher and I was raised on literature with a capital L.  Like many people who don’t read in the genre, I came to it with a lot of preconceived, ill-conceived notions about the quality of the work, about the formulaic nature of the storylines, about the thinness of the characters.  Hillerman opened my eyes.  I discovered an author who was, first and foremost, a fine writer.  His work had a great sense of place, finely drawn and compelling characters, and the Navajo cultural element was fascinating.

My only complaint about Hillerman’s work was that it was, generally speaking, tame.  Very seldom was there any overt violence, at least in the early work.  There was suspense, to be sure, but Leaphorn and Chee were seldom in danger or threatened in a visceral way.  And I wanted them to be.  I wanted something violent, I admit.  Something that would kick up the action.  Though I’m not the kind of guy who likes watching movies just because there are lots of pyrotechnics and flying bodies, I don’t mind a good gun battle or a knockdown drag out now and then.  And the threat of physical violence almost always intensifies the suspense.

So when I wrote Boundary Waters, which was going to be an exploration of suspense in all its forms, I wrote what I now realize was a very violent book.  The body count is fairly high and the deaths fairly graphic (though in my own defense, I don’t believe I linger on the graphic).  I wonder now, in my re-reading of the work, if this was necessary.  The violence and the deaths are all integral to the plot, but does suspense have to be so much about people in danger?

I occasionally teach workshops about suspense, and what I’ve learned over the years and try to communicate to my students is that suspense is created in many different ways, not just by putting someone’s life or safety on the line.  Suspense is simply establishing a situation in which the outcome is uncertain.  Conflict, for example, is suspense: two forces in opposition, and who will win?  Antagonist vs. protagonist.  Corrupt cops vs. righteous hero.  Even, and this is one of my faves, a character involved in a situation in which two parts of his or her nature are at odds.  You create suspense not only by posing a threat, but by asking a question and delaying the answer, by raising a concern and delaying the addressing of that concern.  And it’s in the delay, the time between posing the threat and resolving it, between asking the question and answering it, between putting two forces in opposition and declaring a winner that suspense occurs.

That said, the most intense read, I believe, involves the ultimate threat: Someone will die.  The stakes can’t be any higher.  The heroine or hero has to find answers, has to act before the ax falls.  This is still my favorite form of suspense, the kind that really gets my gut taut.  I love to read it and I will probably always include it as an element of the suspense I create in my own work.

I’ve noticed that, generally speaking, I’ve toned down the violence of my books since Boundary Waters, with two notable exceptions.  The Devil’s Bed is violent.  But it’s a stand-alone thriller, not a mystery, and is a different kind of ballgame.  The other exception is last year’s release in the Cork O’Connor series, Red Knife.  But it’s a book about violence, a book that suggests some observations about our violent nature as a culture.

Okay, so Boundary Waters has a high body count.  And some people may find that objectionable.  On the other hand, it’s a whale of a good read, and a book I’m very proud to have my name on.

Next up: Purgatory Ridge.

6 thoughts on “Suspense vs. Violence”

  1. Hey Kent!

    Elizabeth from Annandale here. Crazy timing on the blog as I just grabbed a paperback copy of Bouday Waters off a friend’s bookshelf a few weeks ago and just cracked the cover. This was my intro to your work lo these many years ago. You’re right, it IS a whale of a good read. I believe I will go back and read all the Cork books in advance of the release of Heaven’s Keep. (BTW – as I read the prologue, I nearly passed out, starting with a ” Noooooooo!” then quickly realizing, “Of course.” Brave you are, my friend.

    See you on 9.2.09 at “Once”
    – E

    Hope to

  2. Regarding the violence in BOUNDARY WATERS.

    There’s a world of difference between violence and gratuitous violence.

    The best definition I’ve found of the latter is from Harlan Ellison. He was writing about TV shows, but I think the same applies to any story. I’m paraphrasing, but the gist of it is:

    Gratuitous violence is violence done to any character we don’t care about; violence just for shock value.

    So even though BW is a very violent book in places, very little of it is gratuitous. The opening scene is a violent death of a character we will come to care about very much. The same is true of the agent who dies late in the story, and ultimately, the bad guy. (Although in this latter case, I’d say we care about him only in the sense that we’re glad he finally gets his comeuppance.)

  3. Hi there Kent –

    Boundary Waters was the first book of yours that I read. The reason I even bothered to read it was the title – I have been canoeing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and the title intrigued me, so I picked it up on a visit to the local library. Since then, I have read all of your Cork O’Connor books (I have The Devil’s Bed, but haven’t read it as of yet. I will, though), and have thoroughly enjoyed every one of them. Another book I could really relate to was Copper River. I went to college at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, and the town in the book (I can’t recall the name right off) was obviously a thinly disguised Big Bay, at the end of County Road 510. I have made many journies out that way, and still have a couple of friends who live out there. Anyway, I very much enjoyed reading a story that takes place in my old stomping grounds.
    I’m not surprised to see that Tony Hillerman was a huge influence on you. I have told people that you are the Tony Hillerman of the north woods, and have turned a few of them on to your books.
    Anyway, thanks for your wonderful work. I’m looking very much forward to reading Heaven’s Keep.

  4. Hi Kent,
    I’m mid-way through Iron Lake and am thoroughly enjoying it! My cousin told me about your books just this past weekend, and I eagerly went to my Kindle to download the first of the Cork O’Connor series.

    My question is, why is every one of your books available on Kindle except Boundary Waters? Can we get a Kindle version of Boundary Waters quickly, please? I’ll be done with Iron Lake this weekend and would love to continue with the series!

    I’m thrilled to have discovered a (new to me) author – keep up the great work!

  5. Caroline,

    The whole Kindle thing is beyond my control. That’s in the hands of my publisher, and I can’t even guess why a book is or isn’t on Kindle. Would seem to me they all should be there, but, hey, I just write the books.


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