George Pelecanos and Laura Lippman: 'It's Hard to Kill a Man'
The first thing a great crime novel needs is a dead body, right? Or, better yet, 10 of them, flayed and splayed, dressed in wedding gowns and hung from the rafters by their own entrails. Maybe not. The characters in George Pelecanos's most recent thriller, "The Cut," now out in paperback, aren't choirboys, but that doesn't mean he set out to write a gore fest. He got together with fellow crime fiction heavyweight Laura Lippman--you know her from her Tess Monaghan series and from her newly published novel, "And When She was Good"--to talk about how and why they deploy violence in their work.
Bookish: Can a crime story be compelling without a pile of bodies by the end?
George Pelecanos: As I’ve gotten older, there are a lot of places I don’t want to go and a lot of things I don’t want to write about anymore. But we are expected to deliver the visceral goods. So you try and do it in a different way. I did write one serial killer novel, "The Night Gardener," but it wasn’t graphic at all. The victims weren’t described, you were never in the head of the serial killer, there were no chapters in italics where the guy’s talking about his mommy. The story was from the perspective of what the crimes did to the police.
There have been entire series, like the Derek Strange series, where I decided from the get-go before I wrote those books that he was never going to pick up a gun. That set up a challenge for me as a crime writer, but you find a way out of it and you still find a way to entertain people without going into ultra-violence.
Laura Lippman: The single most violent thing I’ve written over the course of my career was a scene in which Tess Monaghan--and the Tess series is generally thought of as being lighter and less dark than my stand-alones--is fighting for her life. I waited seven books for Tess to kill somebody and it’s the only time she’s ever done it. In every book since then, she’s shown remembering that moment. I tried to make it as awful as possible for her because I have this line stuck in my head from a Pauline Kael review of a movie I’ve never even seen. I think it’s a Hitchcock movie. Kael talks about a scene in which Hitchcock showed how hard it was to kill another person. That always stayed with me and I thought, I’m going to wait a long time before my character kills someone because killing someone is a really big deal.
GP: The movie was "Torn Curtain," by the way. The quote was, "It’s hard to kill a man." I was actually thinking about that when I was writing "The Cut." And you’re absolutely right. It should be hard to kill someone. When you talk about series where the protagonist kills somebody in every book for whatever reason--retribution, greed, self-defense--and you’ve got 10 books, well, he’s murdered 10 people. There should be some psychological scars but there don’t appear to be. It’s very unrealistic.
Bookish: Is it different if you're not planning on sticking with a character over a number of books?
LL: It’s true that there’s a cumulative effect of violence on a series character in crime fiction, and I think serious writers take that effect seriously. But even in stand-alones, death is serious enough. The details, the almost sexualization of violence doesn’t add anything. If someone needs to say, "No one will take these murders in my books seriously if they’re not sadistic," I think, wow, you must have a really low opinion of your readers, or of your own ability to deliver the goods, or both.
I had a friend die in her sleep recently and I cried just as hard over that as I did over the death the same week of friend who committed suicide by hanging himself in his garage. The manner of dispatch is not what gives death its power.
Bookish: There’s a moment in "The Cut" when a guy is shot and the phrase "head stew" enters the lexicon. It's quick, but it's powerfully evocative. It’s also the first real instance of violence, roughly a third of the way through the novel.
GP: I think it works because of what came before it, the internal monologue where the character who's about to get shot is thinking about his mother, and you know at that point that the guy who's about to get killed is not just some drug dealer. It’s somebody who was a baby once, who had a loving family, who was held by his mother and so on. I prefer the reader get to know the character first before something awful happens. I know that the mystery formula is a murder in the first chapter that is solved in the final chapter, but I’ve never really followed that.
Bookish: So, neither of you revel in knocking off characters, but do you keep track of your fictional body counts?
LL: I think George has killed a lot more people than I have. I’m just going to say that.
GP: "The Cut" is actually pretty violent compared to what I’ve been doing lately. It just fit the character. I don’t know what I’m going to do going forward but it was definitely right for this book. Hopefully when [violence] happens, it’s a shock to everybody because they underestimate Spero Lucas.
LL: I don’t know how many people I’ve killed. Seventeen novels, so I know it’s a lot. Even though I’m down to one or two per novel now.