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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