Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Darkness and Light

I need feedback from readers. Do you prefer darker books, or ones with a bit of optimism? In a series, if you love the characters, does an extremely dark book put you off or only make you want the next book more?

I can't elaborate too much on why I'm asking, only to say it involves something I'm doing, my editor, and a box of Kleenex. As I've been mulling over my dilemma, I've been thinking about very popular series books. Rankin's Black and Blue is one of, if not the darkest Rebus book, and it was the break-out book of the series. Heck, pick any book in Val McDermid's Wire In The Blood series. Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor books run from dark to darker still.

My favourite Jackie Leven album is Creatures of Light and Darkness... And my favourite Mark Billingham book is probably still The Burning Girl, which has a rather grim ending as well. I'd argue that if you think about Laura Lippman's To The Power of Three, there isn't much to be optimistic about at the end. The Fever Kill by Tom Piccirilli. Hard Man and Savage Night by Allan Guthrie. The 50/50 Killer by Steve Mosby. Stuart MacBride's Cold Granite - hell, Broken Skin doesn't end on a particularly cheery note, does it?

I think the majority of my favourite books are quite dark.

So, what do you guys think? What do you prefer? What books are most memorable for you? Why?

(And on the birthday front, I was spoiled with a gift certificate, a gorgeous travel mug, specialty tea, an Annie Lennox CD and Cornelia Read's The Crazy School, which I'd looked for when I was visiting the US earlier this year. I'm looking forward catching up with this series.)


Chris said...

To be honest, I like my books pretty damn bleak, but if they don't have a little glimmer of light, I find 'em pretty hard to take. The good guys don't have to win, per se, but I like it if there IS a good guy, or at least someone who WANTS to do good.

Of course, none of that is what you're asking, is it? No, what you want to know is whether readers will be able to handle the death of a main character, and I bet you're the only one who can answer that. It's got to serve the story, and if it does, people can take it. Of course, that assumes I know anything about anything, which quite frankly, is at times a little suspect...

Sandra Ruttan said...

Oh, I'm not asking if readers can take the death of a main character - not that dark!

And I do agree that most readers will be able to take it if what you do serves the story.


Chris said...

Well, then, I think you're fine! You made the situation sound pretty dire, and I figured that had to be what made you flinch. Anything short of that, trust your gut, and trust the audience to do the same. I hate hate HATE when people knock off key players and the like just to prove they're not afraid to, but I'm always willing to give the author latitude to go as dark as the story will support. That, for me, is always the standard of measure.

norby said...

I definitely prefer dark and grim.

Of course you want them to catch the bad guys in the end, but a nice dark trip on the way there just makes for better reading in my opinion.

John McFetridge said...

It depends on what you mean by dark. Do you mean sad? In CanLit sad has come to mean deep and important. The more depressing the ending, the more 'literary' the book.

But, someone said on one of these blogs a while ago about The Wire, that if you look honestly at the world over a period of time your view is bound to skew towards the dark, the sad, the unhappy.

Look, I think my books are pretty dark because the bad guys never get caught (what kind of mysteries are these? Who would publish them?) but the tone is pretty light. Of course, the 'bad guys' in my books are professionals, they don't have mental problems and they take no plesure in someone else's pain - it's just business.

George Lucas said once it's easy to make an audience cry - show them a puppy and then kill the puppy.

I haven't read it, but my guess is the Laura Lippman book goes pretty deep into the characters and offers some real insights into the human condition - I bet it's a lot more than just showing us the puppy and then killing the puppy.

angie said...

I like the darker books - no secret there. Although, most of my favorites have some bit of black humor in them, too. Not always, but often.

The main trick is that I have to be invested in the protag, or I just don't care. I think if you can do that, your readers will follow.

Favorites? Thompson's THE KILLER INSIDE ME, Bruen's Jack Taylor series (or, y'know most anything by Bruen), Megan Abbott's QUEENPIN, Guthrie's stuff (all of 'em), James Sallis's Lew Griffin books, Faulkner's SOUND AND THE FURY and AS I LAY DYING,um...yeah, and a bunch more!

Sandra Ruttan said...

Chris, I'm with you. I won't do anything just to prove I can do it.

Norby, do they have to catch the bad guys? Oh darn... ;)

John, your books are balanced with a delightfully twisted sense of humour and a lot of sex. It compensates for the darker aspects, and I actually like the fact that there isn't always resolution.

But hey, that's just me.

Angie, what's hilarious is that the two Faulkners you named are the two I own. We think alike!

Randy Johnson said...

I tend toward darker books. But I guess it's really the type of story. Crime, definitely dark.
The recent passing of Robert Asprin reminded me I do love humor. But mostly fantasy and SF.
An example, I like Donald Westlake's Parker series(as by Richard Stark). Parker is a violent character and has his own set of morals.
I'm not really a fan of Westlake's lighter stuff.
Don't know whether this will help, but that's how I feel.

colman said...

I think my tastes are changing away from series books to those of a more standalone nature.
I used to love James Lee Burke and Robicheaux, but to be honest when you're reading a series ....ultimately there's a predictability about what is going to unfold.Robicheaux may get stabbed, shot at, beat up and hit over the head about 12 times with an axe, but he ain't gonna die.....and ultimately it becomes stale and in Lee Burke's case he seems to write the same book over and over again.......not that that is the worst book you will ever read though.
Ditto Stark and Parker, Parker ain't going to die anytime soon and he'll probably get away from the latest job intact but minus the loot.

Kill Parker, kill Robicheaux, kill Harry Bosch........let the lunatics have their day out of the asylum and we'll read an alternate book for a change that might intrigue and hold the interest.

Austin Carr said...

Light, dark, I don't care. I just want an interesting story and a protag that makes me both care about the outcome and want to hangout with him/her again.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Happy Birthday, American Girl!!!!!

pattinase (abbott) said...

And let me tell you, that McFetridge is pretty dark

Sandra Ruttan said...

Randy, I also like dark books. Lighter books are okay every now and again, but my mainstay is definitely dark. But then, we're both big Rankin fans, aren't we?

Colman, do you read Allan Guthrie? I recommend you read Savage Night - one helluva wild ride. I still love series books, but up to a point. I think you have to know when to end them, and I think you have to be willing to step outside some boundaries along the way. You should also check out Steve Mosby's The 50/50 Killer if you love standalones. But based on your comment, you'll LOVE Savage Night.

Austin, of course, those are the most critical points, as you well know. :)

Thanks Patti! I just opened my American bank account today. Still don't have a social security number though.

And yeah, the McFetridge is dark, but wonderfully so. An interesting series as well, since the dominate characters are criminals who do change book to book, while the cops are the ones that carry over and aren't as dominant.

colman said...

Sunshine is great, I've enjoyed his output so far, but haven't yet got to Savage Night though it's on the ever-increasing TBR pile.
Other current faves include Banks, Stella,Zeltserman, Norman Green, Starr,Doolittle,Neil Smith....to mention a few.

I've read Steve Mosby's first and need to catch up on him also.

I won't say I'm done with series, but you're right in that they do have a sell by date, and you have to move on.

I can enjoy lighter crime on occasions...Ford,Fitzhugh,Dorsey.

I think I'm just feeling grouchy today!

norby said...

Well, they don't always have to catch the bad guy, look at Ed McBain's Deaf Man. He taunted the men in the 87th Precinct for a long time.

Barbara said...

Most of my favorites write dark mysteries. The kind of dark that doesn't work so well for me is the ironic/comical dark, where you get the impression that the author really despises and looks down on their characters.

Part of it is that I just don't get along too well with most attempts at humor. I'm also more interested in crimes that involve realistic victims who I can care about, not disposable chess pieces or loathsome people who give most of the other characters convenient motivations to be killers.

A lot of dark books have some optimism, even if they end without uplifting resolutions. They might at least demonstrate human decency in a tough world. Can't ask for much more than that.

Brian said...

You examples list is interesting because it incorporates both standalones and series books.

It's probably easier to go real dark in a standalone, but in terms of a series one of the best things about having at least one book that very dark is that the ramifications can be dealt with for a few books afterwards.

In a series book if you can balance out the light and the dark, or in other words the peaks and valleys, the series as a whole will be more successful because of the contrast.

John McFetridge said...

I agree with Barbara about ironic humour not working most of the time, but I do find a lack of any humour a tough slog.

Elmore Leonard has said he really only started to understand his own writing when he realized he was writing comedy. But it's a very organic humour that comes from the characters and not from the narrator - or just one character passing judgements on the others.

I think a lot of this also has to do with the characters' own expectations. Rebus, maybe the best example, is one of the darkest characters ever because he doesn't expect much from the people around him - even his co-workers. But this doesn't stop him from living his life his way.

What's missing in the Rebus novels is the character who gets something they want. In a lot of PI novels 'someone' gets the truth or justice or something and it makes a difference in their lives.

In Rebus novels, usually Rebus is really the only one who cares and it doesn't really affect him, he just keeps going all the same.

I find that a pretty dark statement about the world. Accurate, but dark.