Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Bouchercon Panel Report #3 - Dark Books For Dark Times

I have several more panels to write up, so I will intersperse them with actual Scottish crime fiction news stuff over the next few days.

Dark Books For Dark Times

Panellists were Reed Farrel Coleman (moderator), Larry Beinhart, J T Ellison, Michael Lister and Duane Swierczynski. I've read and loved Reed's and Duane's books and the 'find' of this panel was Michael Lister, an ex prison chaplain.

This was an excellent panel, and Reed was a brilliant moderator. He allowed a free flow of discussion and let the audience ask loads of questions (with prior warning that there should be no dissertations in the questions (having sat through one or two interminable questions at Bouchercons past, designed only to demonstrate the questioner's brilliance and erudition, I, for one, really appreciated that warning!).

Duane Swierczynski felt that dark books are about people who have lives worse than ours (he cited Balloon Boy as an example) - reading about their torment makes you feel better, even if it is selfish and wrong.

Reed asked the panel about how 'dark' is often synonymous with violence. Michael Lister felt that darkness reflects the choices that we make, but also that there are so many paths which are chosen for us and which we have no influence over. Duane commented that David Goodis described pain and darkness very well.

There was then a discussion on whether a truly dark book has to be dark all the way through, or whether a happy ending at the last minute makes it not a dark book. Michael Lister commented that, for the victim of the crime, it is dark and it doesn't get any darker, no matter what the ending. J T Ellison said that novels can examine the horrible things people can do to each other, but when you read the newspaper, things are even worse. Larry Beinhart commented that Dexter is 'happy darkness'.

Reed said that he finds cosies very dark, said that he once saw someone dying of a gunshot wound and quoted SJ Rozan (quoting someone else) "A cosy is a book in which someone is murdered but no-one is hurt." He also noted that in Jason Starr's books he finds it impossible to care about any of the main characters but that he still really likes the books. Bad people doing bad things are good to read about.

The discussion then turned to humour. Duane cited James Elroy's books as being very funny in places. He enjoys both humour and darkness and feels that the balance and contrast make a book better. J T Ellison note the coping mechanism of cops using black humour. Larry Beinhart loves humour in dark books, and Duane commented on a scene in Hammett's THE GLASS KEY which had the protagonist being beaten up again and again as being very funny.

Michael Lister agreed that contrast really helps and said that in noir films the visual style is high contrast. He said that he has a lot of light in his life but loves to explore the darkness. You don't have to be a dark person to write a dark book - he also said that darkness is not just the absence of light. We are drawn to darkness regardless of the times. I really liked what he had to say and so did Reed who, at this point, commented that if Michael Lister was his preacher, Reed would give up his Bar Mitzvah certificate :o)

Reed said that he tries to reject the idea of resolution as he feels that it doesn't set the world to rights at all. The key is to show that any resolution is temporary - it might resolve one issue but the randomness and unpredictability is still there. Larry Beinhart and Michael Lister had a great discussion about whether darkness = depression. I'm sorry, but I was so fascinated by it that I forgot to write anything down!

Reed asked the panellists whether the truth makes things better or worse. J T Ellison answered that the truth makes things better after it makes them worse. Larry Beinhart and Reed disagreed with this, saying that the truth didn't make things better. Reed used as an example someone having an affair - ie the confession of a spouse who has strayed makes only the cheating spouse feel better.

The discussion then turned to how dark is too dark and whether there is anything the panellists didn't like to write or read about. Duane said kids being hurt or killed, and J T Ellison said hurting animals. Michael Lister felt there wasn't anything too dark, and Reed said that if the book you are writing should go some place really dark, then you should go there.

Some of their favourite dark characters were Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor and Derek Raymond's Factory novels (Duane Swierczynski), Dolarhyde in RED DRAGON (Larry Beinhart), James Lee Burke's Dave Robichaux and Dennis Lehane's GONE BABY GONE (Michael Lister) Megan Abbott's and Daniel Woodrell's characters (Reed - who described them both as 'beautifully, painfully dark').

Reed noted that, as dark as you think a book is, as soon as something happens to you it's much darker. Michael Lister said that we are all going to die and mortality is the reason we explore darkness, everything we care about and love will be gone.

Reed then closed the panel by saying "The end is drawing nigh - like our lives apparently."

An excellent panel, like its subject matter it was full of darkness and light.


  1. Fascinating, donna. So, like, do you have superhuman powers of recall or did you used to be a shorthand secretary type?

  2. I would like to say the former, but really, I have the memory of an amoeba. I also can't do shorthand (pretty useless, really, aren't I?) I just write longhand really fast (albeit, incomprehensibly.

  3. Felt like I was there. Thanks so much.

  4. You are welcome Patti - glad you enjoyed it :o)

  5. That's a lot of hard work from you, Donna. Thanks!

  6. You're welcome Bookwitch - but it's fun!

  7. Donna, you have reported this awesome panel so well...almost every word, well done! It was so good to listen to these 'dark' writers, and they were truthful and funny and yet very 'to the point, and thoughtful--gave us something to ponder, and like you I found some new authors to try and liked hearing the ones I've already tried and admire. Yes, full of darkness and light-good point! And you may write longhand, but you certainly take good notes! Thank you!


  8. Bobbie - wasn't it a great panel? That hour just flew by.