I’m currently reading R.J.Ellory’s The Anniversary Man and it’s made me think about what I write — and what I read. I do wonder sometimes if we are going too far with some of the things we write: do people really need to know what happens when someone’s head is ripped off? Where’s the line between informing and gratuitous?

The Anniversary Man by R.J. Ellory

Crime writer Val McDermid (probably best known for her Tony Hill character) said in an interview during the recent Hay festival she doesn’t want to create cardboard cutouts that can be mangled and destroyed and discarded — the reader needs to know they are people rather than devices. I think that’s a healthy attitude to writing crime or thrillers.

The question that’s prompted this post is me wondering whether we’re giving people too many ideas. We’re already well aware of what one human being can do to another — are we just inventing new techniques to help out the psychopaths and sociopaths in our society?

Maybe, maybe not. I try not to include gratuitous violence in my work, much the same as Ms McDermid. A death in my first novel was described recently in a review as just that and thinking about it in hindsite, I can see how it might look gratuitous when all I was trying to show was how capricious life can be – not everything that happens is the result of some serial killer in life, so why should it be in a story?

There’s a conceit in Trevanian’s Shibumi where the author states in a footnote that he cannot reveal the details of how a certain technique worked as a method he described in a previous novel for stealing artwork from a museum was used in real life (although it appears it might actually have happened, copied by thieves in Turin, but I can’t find any details).

Of course, our instant gratification society doesn’t help things, I suppose, as we know about horrible things that happen across the world in a matter of moments, whereas even 50 years ago, it would have been much less immediate. And one can find just about anything on the internet. As we’re making it so easy to get everything NOW, are we creating a world of potential serial killers?

Stephen King once described what he wrote as having a filter in his brain that picks out the gross and terrifying stuff. He’s had an audience for some time now, so he’s obviously writing things people want to read, however dismissive the publishing trade may be of his work. I particularly like his quote:

“We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.”

My worry is that by doing so, we’re just egging on the damaged people who think this stuff’s a manual for what they should do next.