Category Archives: C.J. Sansom

Though Alan, He Was Protestant, and Sean was Catholic Born*

The Reformation of the 16th and early 17th Century had a profound and lasting impact on Christianity, especially (but not exclusively) in Europe. Whether you have religious beliefs or not, and no matter what those beliefs are, it’s hard to deny the influence of the Reformation on politics, culture, economics and much more.

It’s not surprising that such a significant change would also find its way into crime fiction. The Reformation affected (still does) everyday life in so many ways that it seems natural that we would see it in the genre.

C.J. Sansom’s Mathew Shardlake, for instance, is a London attorney who lives and works in Tudor London, during the reign of King Henry VIII. The Church of England has been established as the official religion of the kingdom, and the king is determined to remove ‘popery’ – allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, that’s one of the main themes of Dissolution, the first in this series. In it, Shardlake is commissioned to travel to a monastery in Swansea to investigate the murder of a man named Robin Singleton. He’d been sent to oversee the dissolution of that monastery, and the delivery of its property and money to the king. The first and most likely explanation is that someone at the monastery killed Singleton to prevent his completing his mission. But, as Shardlake finds out, there are certainly other possibilities. As the series goes on, we see just how important and controversial a topic religion and the Church of England are in Henry VIII’s England.

We see that also in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which also takes place during Henry VIII’s reign. This is the fictional retelling of the story of Thomas Cromwell, one of the king’s most trusted advisors. Mostly through his eyes, we see how the king consolidated power and declared England free of allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church. Cromwell acquired a great deal of power and authority, but it was a very dangerous time. If you know your history, you know that not even the king’s ‘inner circle’ was safe. Among other things, this novel takes an interesting look at the controversy surrounding religion, and the impact the Reformation was having on society. It’s not, strictly speaking, a crime novel. Even so, several crimes are committed in the course of the story.

Shona MacLean (now writing as S.G. MacLean) also provides an interesting perspective on the Reformation in her Alexander Seaton novels. Beginning with The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, the series tells the story of Seaton, who is a teacher in 17th Century Banff, Scotland. It’s a fiercely Protestant place, and there’s quite a lot of concern, even fear, of Roman Catholic plots to take over the country. All of this figures into The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, in which the local apothecary’s assistant, Patrick Davidson, is poisoned. The music master, Charles Thom, is accused of the murder and even imprisoned. He says that he is innocent, and he asks his friend Seaton to clear his name. As Seaton starts to ask questions, he learns that Davidson might have been supplying maps to Scotland’s enemy, Spain. And Spain’s king would like nothing more than to bring Scotland back to the Catholic Church. If Davidson did provide aid to Spain, and anyone found out about it, that would be more than sufficient motive for killing him. Seaton finds that there are other possibilities, too. This isn’t an easy mystery to solve, and Seaton runs into danger as he investigates.

Marian Babson’s Untimely Guest, published in 1976, is the story of a large Irish family led by a tyrannical matriarch known as Mam. The real action in the story begins when the oldest daughter, Bridget ‘Bridie,’ returns from the convent where she’s been for ten years. She tells the family she had to leave because the convent was closing, and Mam’s prepared to accept that story. But there’s more to the story than that. Meanwhile, Bridie’s brothers, Kevin and Patrick, have both married Protestant women (Eleanor and Carmel, respectively). The fact that they’re not Catholic makes them, in a very real sense, outsiders. And it certainly doesn’t do much to ease tension. Against this backdrop, another sister, DeeDee, also returns to the ‘family fold’ to introduce her new fiancé, James. That fact adds even more tension, since she divorced her first husband, Terence. He doesn’t accept the fact of their divorce, and still considers them married. So does Mam. One evening, DeeDee is killed by a fall (or push?) down a staircase. As it happens, several members of the family were on hand at the time, so there is more than one suspect and motive. As we slowly learn the truth, it’s interesting to see how the fact of the Catholic/Protestant divide plays out at the so-called micro level.

The Reformation is also one of the factors that has impacted relations between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. The Troubles of the last few decades of the 20th Century had several underlying causes, political, economic, religious, and more. But one critical factor was the schism between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Even today, there are echoes of the tragedy of the Troubles. And we see that in several crime fiction novels and series. Brian McGilloway, Stuart Neville, Adrian McKinty, and Claire McGowan are just a few of the authors who have placed their novels in Northern Ireland or at the border. In those novels, we see the powerful loyalties people have to one or another group, and we see how the Reformation has impacted lives, even centuries later.

When you think of the Reformation, you might not automatically think of its impact today. But it still has one. And it’s not a surprise to see that such a major event also impacts crime fiction. These are a few examples. I know you’ll think of more.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tommy Sands’ There Were Roses.

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Filed under Adrian McKinty, Brian McGilloway, C.J. Sansom, Claire McGowan, Hilary Mantel, Marian Babson, S.G. MacLean, Shona MacLean, Stuart Neville

‘Cause We Are Patrons of the Arts*

It can be expensive to run a theatre group, or an art gallery. Writers, visual artists, and other artists often find that it’s helpful to have a patron – someone who can underwrite an endeavor. Symphonies, galleries, and other such places depend on patrons to help pay overhead expenses and other bills. And charitable groups benefit greatly from patrons, too.

But it’s not entirely a one-way relationship. Patrons often support art or a given charity because they love it, and they know their patronage helps keep it going. That’s not to mention what patronage does for their reputations. To be coldly practical, patronage can also serve as a tax benefit.

That relationship can be interesting to explore in a story. And sometimes, it figures into a plot in a crime novel. That’s not surprising, either. Sponsors and patrons wield a certain amount of power, and that can make for an interesting layer in a story. And there’s the relationship between the patron and the artist(s). That, too, can add to a story.

Agatha Christie explores this relationship in a few of her stories. In Murder on the Orient Express, for instance, we are introduced to Princess Natalia Dragomiroff. She is a very wealthy patron of the stage, and has many friends among the stage’s elite. She finds herself drawn into a murder mystery when she takes a three-day trip across Europe on the famous Orient Express train. On the second night, an American businessman named Samuel Ratchett is stabbed. Hercule Poirot happens to be on the train, and he is persuaded to investigate. The hope is that he’ll be able to find out who the killer is before the train crosses the next international border. The only possible suspects are the other passengers in the same carriage; and, since Princess Dragomiroff’s first-class cabin is in that carriage, she becomes a person of interest.

Rex Stout’s Champagne For One introduces readers to Louise Robilotti. She is the very wealthy patron of Grantham House, with is a charitable (rather than artistic) endeavor. It’s a home for unwed mothers and their babies, and it’s intended as a place for those women to live while they find jobs or get job training. Eventually, it’s hoped that the residents of Grantham House will meet eligible men and, hopefully, find husbands. To that end, every year, Mrs. Robilotti hosts a benefit dinner/dance at her home in aid of Grantham House. Among the guests are usually several eligible bachelors, as well as some of Grantham House’s residents. Archie Goodwin gets the chance to attend this event when a friend of his persuades him to go. At the event, he meets a few of the women who live at Grantham House, including Faith Usher. When Faith suddenly dies of what turns out to be cyanide poisoning, it looks as though it might be suicide. But Goodwin, who was there, isn’t so sure of that. He and his boss, Nero Wolfe, look into the matter to see who might have wanted to kill the victim.

Patronage can also, of course, be professional. For instance, C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake is a 16th-Century attorney. Today’s attorneys generally work either for a law firm (unless they have their own offices), or for the government as prosecuting attorneys. Not so Shardlake. He works on commission from wealthy, noble patrons such as Thomas Cromwell and Queen Catherine Parr. On the one hand, having the protection of a powerful patron gives him both ‘clout’ and a certain amount of security. After all, he travels on royal or noble business. On the other hand, Shardlake doesn’t always get the answers his patrons might want him to get. And they generally have enough authority and power to imprison him, or worse, if they don’t like what he uncovers. So, he sometimes has to be very careful about how he goes about his work.

Laura Joh Rowland’s Shinjū takes place towards the end of the 18th Century, in Edo (now Tokyo). Sano Ichirō is a yoriki, a senior investigator/police officer. In the novel, he investigates the deaths of the ‘well born’ Niu Yukiko and her lover, an artist named Noriyushi. At first, it looks as though this is a case of the double suicide of lovers who knew they could never be together. But it turns out to be much more than that, and Sano finds that the trail leads to some very high places. And that could be a problem for him. He himself is not ‘well born,’ as are most of his colleagues in the same position. Instead, he got his job through a wealthy patron whose family owed a debt to the Sano family. So, Sano doesn’t have any real social standing; he depends for that on his patron. It’s an interesting example of how a patron can influence someone’s career.

And then there’s Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead. In that novel, Inspector Esa Khattak and Sergeant Rachel Getty of the Community Policing Section (CPS) of the Canadian federal government get a new case. It seems that a man named Christopher Drayton died after a fall from Ontario’s Scarborough Bluff. On the surface, it doesn’t seem the sort of case that the CPS would handle. Their normal focus is hate crime. But then, they learn that the victim might have been Dražen Krstić, a notorious war criminal also called the butcher of Srebrenica. If so, this could be a matter for the CPS. Khattak and Getty get to work and begin to look for possible leads. The fact that Drayton might have been Krstić is one possibility. But there’s also the victim’s personal life and his professional life. Soon, Khattak and Getty learn that Drayton was a patron of the Andalusia Museum, a project created to celebrate the culture, music, and art of Moorish Andalusia. He wanted to be on the museum’s board of directors, but several people objected strongly to this. They didn’t want him to have that much influence in the museum. This turns out to be a complicated case, and it’s interesting to see the patron/art-loving side of the victim’s character.

Patrons can make all the difference in the world to a struggling orchestra, gallery, or charitable group. And they can be interesting characters in and of themselves. So, it’s little wonder they show up in crime fiction as they do.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Shawn Mullins’ This One’s For the Majors.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ausma Zehanat Khan, C.J. Sansom, Laura Joh Rowland, Rex Stout

Too Much Information Running Through My Brain*

Part of the reason that people enjoy historical fiction is that it can give really interesting information about a particular time and place. That’s part of why, for many readers, it’s important that their historical fiction be accurate. They want to learn from it, which is hard to do if it’s not realistic.

But that presents a challenge. Even if you don’t read much historical fiction, you probably know that many periods of history haven’t been exactly pleasant. Wars, disease, high infant mortality, lack of hygiene, and plenty of other factors could make life miserable. That’s especially true for those who were poor or otherwise disenfranchised. At the same time as readers of historical fiction want realistic depictions, they may very well not want unrelenting misery. So, what’s the balance? How can an author depict a particular historical period honestly, yet in an engaging way? Everyone has a different idea of what ‘counts’ as the right amount of realism. But here are a few examples of books and series that strike that balance.

Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites is the fictional retelling of the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, one of the last people to be executed for murder in Iceland. The novel takes place beginning in 1828, when two farmers, Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson, are murdered, allegedly by Agnes Magnúsdóttir, Friðrik Sigurðsson, and Sigrídur ‘Sigga’ Gudmondsdóttir. The three suspects are found guilty, and are sentenced to death. It’s decided that, rather than spend the money to keep Agnes housed in a prison, she will be sent to live with District Officer Jón Jónsson, his wife, Margrét, and their two daughters, Steina and Lauga. There, so it’s believed, she will benefit from living with a ‘good Christian family’ for her last months. And the government won’t be responsible for feeding and housing her. The family will benefit, too, from her work. As the story goes on, we slowly get to know Agnes, and we learn about her past, her relationship with the other two convicted of the crime, and their reasons. Throughout the novel, Kent is clear about what life was like at that time, and in that place, especially if you were a woman and a convict. There’s no glossing over. At the same time, the attention is on the story, rather than on every gritty detail.

One could say much the same thing about C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series. Shardlake is a lawyer who lives and works in London during the reign of King Henry VIII. It’s a very uncertain time, with religious upheaval, political intrigue, and strained international relations. Life’s not easy for the average person; in fact, it can be quite bleak. And even those with means are not immune from disease, persecution, and more. Against this backdrop, Shardlake has to move very carefully. He knows he works at the pleasure of the king and his advisors. If he does anything to displease them, he risks everything. Sansom doesn’t make light of the grim realities of life at that time. That said, though, the focus is on the mysteries and the plot threads relating to them.

It is in Ariana Franklin/Diana Norman’s Adelia Aguilar series, too. These novels take place in the 12h Century, during the rule of King Henry II. Aguilar is a doctor, originally from the University at Salerno, who is summoned by the king to investigate a murder. Life at this time is grueling, especially for women and other disenfranchised people. In fact, for her own safety, Aguilar has to work ‘behind the scenes’ and pretend that the medical work is done by Simon Menahm – Simon of Naples – who came with her to England. It’s too dangerous for a woman to be involved in medical science. Superstition plays a major role in people’s lives, and that, too, makes life difficult. That’s not to mention the other hardships that people faced at the time. But the focus of these novels is on the cases at hand. It’s not that Franklin/Norman plays down the realities of the times. Rather, the emphasis is on the stories, instead of on the ‘gory details.’

Kate Grenville’s The Secret River tells the story of William Thornhill and his family, who move from London to Sydney 1806, when Thornill is sentenced to transportation for stealing a load of wood. The family makes a new start, with Thornhill earning a living by making deliveries up and down the local river. His wife, Sal, sets up a makeshift pub. Little by little, they settle in. But as they do, they come into increasing conflict with the people who were always there.  That conflict ends in some brutal atrocities. Although Thornhill wants no part of this sort of bloodshed, he soon sees that he’ll have to get his hands dirty if he’s to build a life on the piece of land he dreams of owning. Grenville is realistic about what it was like to be poor in London at that time, and later, what it was like to live in a penal colony. It’s dirty, exhausting, and sometimes very ugly. Lifespans are not long, and disease kills very quickly. That said, though, there isn’t exhaustive detail about the grimness of live. Rather, Grenville’s focus is on the story of how the Thornhill family makes a new life in Australia.

Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu novels are set in 1920’s India, mostly in Madras (today’s Chennai). Life’s not really easy, even for the British, who are firmly in charge. It’s much more difficult for anyone else, especially the poor who happen to be Indian. Although there have been some medical advances, there’s still a high mortality rate. As is mentioned in The Pallampur Predicament,
 

‘If there was a scourge left for the British in India, it was illness in many forms.’
 

That said, though, Stoddart’s focus is the mystery at hand in each novel. There’s no glossing over some of the difficulties of life; at the same time, the novels don’t dwell on them.

That’s also arguably true of the work of other authors, such as Sulari Gentill, Gordon Ferris, and Felicity Young. It’s not an easy balance to strike. On the one hand, readers want realistic portrayals. On the other, most readers don’t want unrelenting bleakness. What’s your personal balance? If you’re a writer of historical crime fiction, how do you acknowledge the difficulties of life in other times without letting them overpower your plots?
 

ps. The ‘photo is from Abba Eban’s Heritage: Civilization and the Jews, and was reprinted there from the Bettmann Archives. It shows a tenement in New York’s Lower East Side not long after the turn of the 20th Century.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Police’s Too Much Information.

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Filed under Ariana Franklin, Brian Stoddart, C.J. Sansom, Diana Norman, Felicity Young, Gordon Ferris, Hannah Kent, Kate Grenville, Sulari Gentill

How the Mighty Have Fallen*

Being powerful certainly has its advantages. Things get done on your say-so, and you have access to things that you otherwise wouldn’t. It’s not surprising that a lot of people would like to be powerful.

But that’s just the problem. People in power can be very vulnerable, because others want that power. And there’s no guarantee that someone with power will stay in that powerful position. Just ask Thomas Cromwell, who was arrested on this date in 1540. As you’ll know, he was one of King Henry VIII’s most trusted advisors. And he had a great deal of influence. But that didn’t stop the king having him arrested and, a bit more than a month later, executed.

Hilary Mantel’s historical novels, Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and the upcoming The Mirror and the Light, tell the story of Cromwell’s rise, fall, and execution. They may not be, strictly speaking, considered crime fiction. But there are plenty of crimes mentioned in them. And they show how illusory power can be. And there are plenty of other historical figures whose stories show that, too. I’m sure you can think of many more than I could. We certainly see it in historical crime fiction, right, fans of C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels?

We see how vulnerable the powerful can be in lots of crime fiction, actually. For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from the King of Bohemia. He’s soon to marry a wealthy Scandinavian princess, and that union is expected to advance both of their fortunes. But there’s one big problem: an actress named Irene Adler. She and the king are former lovers, and she has a compromising photograph of them. The king wants Holmes to get that photograph, because he knows that if his fiancée finds out about it, the marriage won’t happen. Holmes agrees, and soon learns that he is up against a most worthy adversary. In fact, as fans of the Holmes stories know, she bests Holmes.  In this case, power has advantages for the king, but it also leaves him at a disadvantage.

In Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows, which takes places in the late 1990s, we are introduced to the wealthy, powerful families who live in an enclave called The Cascade Heights Country Club. Known as ‘The Heights,’ it’s a gated, ultra-exclusive community located about 30 miles from Buenos Aires. Only the very wealthiest and most powerful people can afford to live there, and even they are ‘vetted’ carefully. The people who live in The Heights are protected from the daily struggles that a lot of people in Argentina face, and they are in completely unassailable social positions. Everything changes, though, when Argentina’s economic problems find their way into the community. The very power that has protected its residents also means that they have to live up their reputations. Many aren’t prepared to leave the community, find more affordable places to live, and so on. And for some, their social status has become so important that they can’t imagine life without it. And that leads to real tragedy.

Olavo Bettencourt learns how vulnerable power can make a person in Edney Silvestre’s Happiness is Easy. He’s an advertising executive whose services are much in demand. And, with Brazil’s political process getting more open, Bettencourt has found that political candidates are advertising more and more. And this means he’s steadily acquiring more and more power. But he’s trapped, although he’s not really aware of it, because he’s engaged in several corrupt business deals. He’s certainly being manipulated more than he thinks. That becomes all too painfully clear when a gang decides to kidnap his son, Olavinho. It’s a logical choice, given Bettancourt’s money and power. But the gang abducts the wrong boy. Instead of Olavinho, they take the son of the Bettancourts’ housekeeper. Now, the gang has to decide what to do with the boy they kidnapped, and what to do about their original plans. And Bettancourt has to decide how much to tell the media and the police. After all, if he shares too much information, he could be vulnerable to prosecution. Not enough, and the result could be tragic.

Fans of Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen Cao series can tell you that these novels often focus on those in power – the High Cadre. On the one hand, they are very important people. They make the decisions, they have all of the ‘perks’ that power brings, and so on. On the other hand, because they’re in such enviable positions, there are plenty of other people who would like nothing better than to take that power for themselves. So, even though they tend to protect each other, they are also very vulnerable to one another. And, they’re vulnerable to the ‘court of public opinion.’ Their public reputation can be, and is, used against them.

Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache isn’t what you’d call wealthy. And he’s not at the proverbial top of the tree when it comes to his position within the Sûreté du Québec. But he’s legendary in terms of his ability to solve cases. And he’s well-known as a person who supports his teammates, and coaches his juniors in helpful ways. So, in that sense, he has a certain amount of ‘clout’ within the Sûreté. And that’s part of what makes him vulnerable. In one story arc, we learn that several people would like to see him fail, and will stop at very little to succeed in that.

And that’s the thing about power. It’s most definitely got its advantages. But it also puts a person in a very vulnerable position. These are only a few examples. Over to you.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Hoodoo Gurus.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, C.J. Sansom, Claudia Piñeiro, Edney Silvestre, Hilary Mantel, Louise Penny, Qiu Xiaolong

Always Shouts Out Something Obscene*

An interesting pair of events happened on this day, only five years apart. In 1955, copies of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl were seized as being obscene. Only five years later, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was ruled not obscene. It’s all got me to thinking about our standards for what ‘counts’ as too explicit, too violent, or in some other way too graphic. To an extent, beliefs about what ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ be discussed are a product of the times. But there are arguably other factors at play, too.

For instance, like several writers of her generation, Agatha Christie didn’t really write about explicit sex. And certain other topics were also taboo. Yet, she made her meaning clear enough. For instance, in Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Hercule Poirot investigates the sixteen-year-old poisoning murder of famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time of his death, he was having an affair with Elsa Greer, who was staying in Crale’s home (she was modeling for a painting he was doing). The fact of that relationship, plus some solid evidence, placed Crale’s wife, Caroline, under suspicion. In fact, she was arrested, tried and convicted, dying in prison a year later. But now, her daughter wants her name cleared, and Poirot agrees to try. Of course, if Caroline Crale was innocent, that means that someone else is guilty. So, part of Poirot’s task is to find out who that someone else might have been. One possibility is family friend Philip Blake. As it turns out, he had strong feelings for Caroline and, in fact, asked her to have an affair with him:
 

‘‘I never liked her, if you understand. But it would have been easy at any moment for me to make love to her…She came to my room. And then, with my arms around her, she told me quite coolly that it was no good! After all, she said, she was a one-man woman.’’
 

In this novel, first published in 1942, there are a few discussions of adultery and illicit affairs. They’re important in the story, but neither is described in detail.

Three years earlier, in 1939, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep was published. In that novel, PI Philip Marlowe is hired by Guy Sternwood to stop an extortionist named Arthur Geiger.  When Marlowe tracks Geiger to his office, he finds that Geiger’s just been killed.  Worse, Sternwood’s daughter, Carmen, is in the room. She’s too drugged or dazed to be of much help, but Marlowe doesn’t want her dragged into the situation any more than necessary. So, he gets her out of the room. With Geiger dead, Marlowe thinks he’s done with the Sternwoods, but the truth turns out to be quite different. At one point, for instance, Carmen turns up in Marlowe’s place (he actually finds her in his bed), and her purpose is obviously to seduce him:
 

‘Then she took her left hand from under her head and took hold of the covers, paused dramatically, and swept them aside. She was undressed all right.’
 

There’s more, but this should be enough to show that, even though this novel was published a few years before Five Little Pigs, it’s more explicit. Most people classify the Philip Marlowe novels as noir, which tends to be more graphic than is the work of more traditional Golden Age authors such as Christie. So, part of what ‘counts’ as too much explicitness could very well be a matter of sub-genre. For instance, cosy mysteries are, in part, defined by their lack of explicitness.

Another factor at play here may be context. For example, C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series takes place during the Tudor years. Shardlake is an attorney, which gets him involved in the murder cases he investigates. Throughout the series, there are references, for instance, to affairs. But they’re more oblique references, and aren’t described in detail. It’s not because Sansom is required to avoid explicitness. Rather, that series isn’t the right context for it. It takes place at a time when such things were not discussed (at least publicly) using the ‘blow by blow’ accounts that we sometimes see in today’s novels. So a very graphic description wouldn’t really fit in with the rest of the context.

On the other hand, Lawrence Block’s Small Town, published in the same year (2003) as the first Matthew Shardlake novel, is quite different. It features a serial killer nicknamed the Carpenter, and a collection of different New York characters, including a dominatrix and the ex-police commissioner who falls in love with her. There’s plenty of drug use, sex, and other explicitness in this novel. It’s that sort of story. Block doesn’t include those aspects for ‘shock value.’

There’s also, of course, the matter of personal taste. Some readers are bothered by any mention of sex beyond the most oblique reference. Others don’t mind the detail. And, although the focus in this post has mostly been about sex, the same might be said for anything else that could be considered ‘obscene.’

For instance, James Ellroy’s LA Quartet has quite a lot of extremely explicit language. The same goes for Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town. Christopher Brookmyre’s work also can get quite explicit. Many readers prefer to avoid that sort of language; others aren’t so bothered by it. Is it obscene? That’s a difficult question to answer. I would argue (and please feel free to differ with me if you do) that the language in those books is not out of context. That is, it’s not put there for shock value. It’s woven into the stories and helps to give them their ‘feel.’ That said, though, there’s no denying that it’s profanity, and profanity offends some readers (or at least, it’s language they’re rather not read or hear).

This is, perhaps, part of why it’s so difficult to define ‘obscene. What ‘counts’ as obscene varies a great deal based on time, on context, on individual taste, and on other things. So, while there are some things that just about all of us would call obscene, there are others that aren’t at all so clear. What’s your view? What’s your ‘barometer,’ if you have one?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Mean Mr. Mustard.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Allen Ginsberg, C.J. Sansom, Christopher Brookmyre, D.H. Lawrence, James Ellroy, Karin Slaughter, Lawrence Block, Raymond Chandler