Audiences at author events often challenge authors to explain their choices around depictions of death and violence. I was impressed to hear S. J. Rozan once describe her choices in terms of a moral response to violence: If you don’t “see” what happened, how can you react appropriately? We need to “say no” to violence.
The cover of the ninth Nancy Drew book shown here, The Sign of the Twisted Candles, doesn’t necessarily foretell what will happen early in the book, as Nancy slams on the brakes of her roadster: “An undertaker’s long black car was just driving away. Someone was — dead!” On the other hand, this “off-stage death” (the body is literally leaving the scene as Nancy arrives) is much less scary than what happens in Chapter XVI, when a man with “an evil grin on his face” grabs Nancy and says, “I got my orders to get rid of you!”
Mysteries for younger readers, like Kathleen Ernst’s AmericanGirl book Midnight in Lonesome Hollow, don’t take risk and threat to such a personal level; in this book, Kit’s fears have to do with darkness, getting lost, and overhearing “rough people” talking.
Then again, there’s the deeper consideration of death that takes place in a “young adult” book that also attracts grown-up readers, Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, when 11-year-old Flavia de Luce says:
The eyes, as blue as the birds in the Willow pattern, looked up int mine as if staring out from some dim and smoky past, as if there were some recognition in their depths.
And then they died.
The more sorrow, fear, and sensory detail we introduce, the more impact a violent scene has on the reader. But writing for young adults means weighing this impact carefully. Our culture protects young people from graphic violence in films and TV, through ratings — but doesn’t do so on the covers of books, after all.
Where are your lines around violence in mysteries and crime fiction? Where do you think they need to be for the young people you may write for, or to whom you’ll give a book? What examples can you add to this discussion? I’d like to know.