Crime fiction prologues – love them or hate them?

Sometimes when you read lots of crime novels in quick succession, particular trends start to emerge. For me recently, it’s been the increasing use of prologues that are action-dominated and gruesomely violent. Perhaps I’ve had a bad run, but in the space of ten books I’ve encountered the following ‘gritty prologues’ (from male and female authors of different nationalities):

  • A man wakes to find himself bound to a table. He is tortured to death. Told from the victim’s point of view.
  • A woman arrives home in the dark, is attacked from behind and almost strangled to death. Told from the victim’s point of view.
  • A father drops his son off at a friend’s house, only to discover that the family has been brutally murdered. Told from the father’s point of view.
  • A father tries and fails to stop his daughter seeing a grisly corpse he has just uncovered in a peat bog. Told from the daughter’s point of view.
  • A stray dog scavenging for food finds three fresh corpses that will make a nice supper. Told from the dog’s point of view (!).
  • A woman is suffocated in her bed with a pillow. Told from the murderer’s point of view.

Truly. I kid you not.

A number of questions arise:

  1. What’s the aim of this kind of prologue? To grab the reader’s attention in a competitive market place? To demonstrate the crime writer’s ‘chops’ when describing extreme violence? To sell more books?
  2. Why does the violence have to be dialled up to 11, described in minute detail, and told from the victim/murderer POV? Is there some kind of grim inflation going on, with authors competing to describe ever more violent/sadistic acts? And is this really what authors/editors/publishers think readers want?
  3. Are these kinds of prologues new? A quick scout of my bookshelves tells me they’re not. Henning Mankell uses prologues in Sidetracked (1995), The Fifth Woman (2000) and other Wallander novels. So does Hakan Nesser in Borkmann’s Point (1994), George Pelecanos in The Big Blowdown (1996) and Jan Costin Wagner in Silence (2007).
  4. Do prologues feature regularly in crime before the 1990s? I’m not sure. I couldn’t find any, but haven’t done an exhaustive search by any means. It would be interesting to know when crime fiction prologues became an established feature.
  5. Has the nature of the crime fiction prologue changed? On the basis of an admittedly tiny sample, it seems to me that they have. The older prologues listed under 3. include the story of a family in the Dominican Republic, a woman reading a letter informing her of her mother’s death, and an encounter between two friends in an ambulance en route to hospital. Rather than depicting acts of violence, they give information that helps readers to make sense of acts of violence later in the narrative. The other two do portray graphic violence, but the first is leavened with black humour, and the second is vital to understanding the psychology and roles of two characters in relation to the crime. Neither are told from the POV of the victim or murderer. By contrast, the more recent prologues feel much more gratuitous, and could easily be left out without disturbing the narrative.
  6. Does a terrible prologue = a terrible crime novel? Not necessarily. In fact, there’s sometimes an odd shift in tone between the prologue and the main narrative, which suggests that the prologue could have been tacked on.
  7. Whose idea are these prologues? Do authors come under pressure to add gritty prologues from their editors or publishers or readers? Is the driving force a commercial one, and if so, is there actual proof that such prologues ‘work’ in terms of getting readers to buy books?

The Tempest, Act II, Scene I

But all is not lost. Just this morning I picked up a new crime novel by a certain Norwegian author. Its prologue shows a policeman receiving a letter that will help him to solve an open case from 33 years ago. Hooray!

What’s your view as a reader? Take part in the mini-polls below if you fancy, and let me know your thoughts in the comments below. If any authors, editors, publishers or translators would like to add to the discussion they’d be most welcome 🙂 ***The polls are now closed*** 

Thanks to everyone who took part in the prologue polls. The results are now visible below.

Some thoughts on the results: In each poll, the highest-scoring response (between 47% and 53% of respondents) was a neutral one. So around half of those who took the polls didn’t have strong views about prologues or their usefulness, and didn’t feel that their buying decisions were influenced by them one way or the other. Notably, however, the second-highest response in each poll was negative. In the first poll, 29% said they disliked prologues, in the second poll, 29% felt that they were largely unnecessary, and in the third, 24.5% said that a prologue had put them off buying a book. So at least a quarter of readers don’t seem to like prologues very much or consider them largely necessary. The third-highest responses in the first two polls were more positive: 10% said they liked prologues in poll one, and 17% felt that prologues often had a useful function in poll two. In the third poll, which looked at buying decisions, almost 18% said that the prologue had influenced them in both directions (to buy and not to buy). Only 5% said that a prologue had led them to buy a book. That last finding might surprise some editors and publishers (though the percentage would go up a bit if one added more points from the ‘both’ response).

Obviously, the sample size here is small, but the results are thought-provoking nonetheless.

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Lindgren’s Death in Sunset Grove (Finland), Tuomainen’s The Mine (Finland), and Fossum’s Hellfire (Norway)

I’m spending a fair bit of time reading Petrona 2017 entries at the moment (our deadline is looming), so don’t be surprised if you notice a distinctly Scandi flavour to my posts over the next few weeks.

One of the many good things about being a Petrona Award judge is reading interesting crime novels you might otherwise pass over: the judging process means giving all of the submitted crime novels a fair shot, and looking past any negative first impressions a cover or sales blurb might give. The reward is sometimes a surprisingly satisfying read – as was the case with Minna Lindgren’s Death in Sunset Grove (trans. from Finnish by Lola Rogers, Pan 2016).

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This kind of cover would normally put me right off: it looks fluffy and twee, and presses two big commercial buttons via the ‘Lavender Ladies Detective Agency’ subtitle (a nod to McCall Smith’s ‘No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ series) and the ‘Finnish Miss Marple’ tag. Both are in fact misleading – there’s no proper detective agency in the novel, and no sharp-as-a-tack Miss Marple at work. What we get is actually a lot more interesting: a meandering, rather unfocused investigation by a group of nonagenarians into a set of crimes at an old people’s home called Sunset Grove, and a bleakly comic exploration of what it means to get old.

The main protagonist is Siiri Kettunen, who is shocked when she hears a young cook at the home has died, and realises there’s some shady stuff going on. What follows gives readers a vivid sense of the trials and confusions of getting old, as well as the twin pitfalls of loneliness and elder abuse. I particularly liked the emphasis on the importance of friendship in old age, not least when your avaricious family lets you down. Siiri’s long tram rides through Helsinki and her appreciation of its architectural gems are also very engaging.

You can read an extract from Death in Sunset Grove here, which opens with this lovely line: ‘Every morning Siiri Kettunen woke up and realized that she wasn’t dead yet’.

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Antti Tuomainen’s The Mine (trans. from Finnish by David Hackston, Orenda Books, 2016) is a gripping eco-thriller that explores corruption in the Finnish mining industry. Tuomainen takes what could be a slightly tired plotline (an investigative journalist placing his life in danger by poking around somewhere he shouldn’t) and elevates it through his exploration of a highly unusual father-son relationship and the choices parents make. There’s quite a bit of graphic violence and the odd implausible moment, but the author pulls it all off with panache. The novel also has an excellent sense of place, especially the portions set in the remote, frozen north.

I really like Tuomainen’s work. He’s written five crime novels so far, of which I’ve read three, and they’re always highly original and extremely well-written. My favourite is probably still The Healer (I have a weakness for apocalyptic crime), but all of them are multi-layered, interesting pieces of work. You can find out more here.

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Karin Fossum’s Hellfire (trans. from Norwegian by Kari Dickson; Harvill Secker 2016) is the twelfth in the ‘Chief Inspector Sejer’ series and one of her very best.

Fossum stands out among Scandinavian crime writers for her devastating dissections of murder and its repercussions. In this novel, Bonnie and Simon, a mother and her five-year-old son, are found murdered in an old caravan. Alongside the investigation in the present, the narrative depicts the lives of the victims and a young man before the event, and how their paths eventually cross. Fossum provides brilliant psychological portraits of her characters, and shows, in a completely plausible fashion, how myriad factors combine to lead to the killing. It’s the literary equivalent of watching a car crash happen in slow motion, and makes for a very difficult read, because Hellfire really does confront the reader with the realities of murder and its terrible effects. Simply outstanding.

I think I’ll need something a little lighter next…

Babylon Berlin, Miss Marple, and The Bridge of Spies

We spent a week in Berlin at the end of January. It was freezy and snowy and altogether delightful, not least because of the copious amounts of food we consumed, from Bratwurst to Vietnamese dumplings to stacks of lovely cake (pics below). And as ever, the city was also a Krimi paradise, with its specialist crime bookshops and plentiful crime fiction events.

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Kino Babylon in Mitte

Author Volker Kutscher was in town to give a reading from Lunapark, the sixth novel in his ‘Gereon Rath’ historical crime fiction series, which is set in Weimar and National Socialist Berlin. It took place in a wonderful old cinema called Kino Babylon, which opened in 1929 – the same year the series starts. In another nice twist, Babylon Berlin is the title of the first ‘Rath’ novel translated into English – by Niall Sellar for Sandstone Press – and the name of the high-budget Sky/ARD TV adaptation currently in production, directed by the wonderful Tom Tykwer (due to air later this year).

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The format of these kinds of literary events is a bit different in Germany. Volker read out three substantial extracts, each of which highlighted a specific aspect of the novel (the rising persecution of Jewish-German citizens in Nazi Germany; working life in the Berlin police; growing political tensions in Rath’s own family). Together, these showcased Kutscher’s writing talents and gave the 300-strong audience a tantalising glimpse of where Rath’s story is heading. There was also some interesting discussion:

  • Kutscher revealed that he plans to write nine novels in the ‘Rath’ series, ending in 1938, the year of the Reichskristallnacht pogrom (Night of Broken Glass), when it’s clear that Nazi persecution of the Jews is escalating and war is on the horizon. In addition, there’ll probably be a collection of stories to round the series off, giving ten books in total. His editor at Kiepenheuer&Witsch has different ideas; he’s going to try to persuade Kutscher to write more.
  • The character of Gereon Rath is purposefully flawed. The author doesn’t want him to be viewed as a hero – the emphasis is on how he navigates his way through the very difficult political times in which the series is set.
  • Kutscher’s Berlin is inspired by Erich Kästner’s Emil und die Detektive [Emil and the Detectives, 1929], and by American gangster stories and films. He uses old films and photos of everyday life in Berlin to get the detail right, especially when buildings no longer exist, such as the Alexanderplatz Police Headquarters (now the hideous Alexa shopping centre).

I had a bit of a chat with Volker after the event… Watch this space for some very exciting news….!

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The big Dussmann bookshop in the centre of town has a section dedicated to Berlin Krimis

Another lovely stop was coffee with Katy Derbyshire to talk all things translation. Katy’s the translator of one of my favourite German crime novels – Simon Urban’s Plan Dand posts fascinating notes about the process of translating on her blog, love german books. You can read her post on Plan D here, which also gives an insight into the crucial role translators can play in getting European novels published in the UK.

Then it was off to the Miss Marple crime bookshop in Charlottenburg, where I picked up the first in the ‘Markus Cheng’ private investigator series by Austrian author Heinrich Steinfest (Piper, 2007 [2000]). I’ve been keen to get hold of this one since it was covered by Marieke Krajenbrink in our Crime Fiction in German volume. It’s not yet available in translation, but looks like a lot of fun – the setting is Vienna and the narrative has a nicely sardonic tone.

Miss Marple is one of at least three independent crime bookshops in Berlin – two others are Hammett and totsicher (dead certain). They seem to keep afloat quite nicely, probably because a German version of the net pricing agreement is still in place, which prevents them being undercut by bigger bookshops and supermarkets. That Germany is a nation of crime lovers was evident from the steady stream of customers during my visit, although there’s clearly a threat from big online retailers, as shown by the paper bag in which my book was wrapped.

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Rough translation of the slogan on the bag: You don’t need to trek to the Amazon when there are books right on your doorstep

This time we also made it out to the Glienicke Brücke, which marked the Cold War border between Potsdam (in East Germany) and West Berlin from 1949 to 1989. The bridge hosted three major spy swaps, which earned it the nickname The Bridge of Spies. The latter is of course also the title of the 2015 Steven Spielberg film starring Tom Hanks, which depicted the Abel/Powers exchange of 1962. I’d been very keen to visit for a while, and being there certainly lived up to expectations. You can very much feel the weight of history, and standing at the centre of the bridge, on the line between east and west, felt very strange indeed. It also happens to be an exceptionally beautiful spot, with views out over two large and very lovely lakes.

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Clockwise from left: detail from bridge railing; bridge from eastern lower side; view over the lake standing by the bridge on western side; centre of the bridge, marked by a metal line saying ‘German division until 1989’.

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Giant GDR symbol used as a film prop in Spielberg’s The Bridge of Spies. Now in the Villa Schöningen exhibition about the bridge (on the eastern side)

You can read more about the Glienicke Bridge and its spy swaps over at history.com.

To finish off, here’s a selection of the food we hoovered up while in Berlin. Return trip to be scheduled soon.

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From top left: German herring salad; Franzbroetchen; (divine) roll with cheese; giant portion of cheesecake; Vietnamese won ton; Apfelstrudel with whipped cream; Turkish selection of starters with Efes beer, Vietnamese beef dish with aniseed broth; Berliner Bier