Nothing Like the Night by David Lawrence: why did I read this book?

June 23, 2007 at 12:27 pm (Book review, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

david-lawrence.jpg nothing-nihjt.jpg I have asked myself the above question several times in the past year or so, with regard to certain works of crime fiction. The chief problem has been – and perhaps this should not be too surprising, given the genre – excessive violence explicitly portrayed. I’ve encountered not only grotesque scenes of murder, but also meticulous descriptions of decaying corpses. Ugly, loveless sex seems to be on the rise as well.

My most recent reading experience in this vein has been Nothing Like the Night by David Lawrence. I should say right now that this is the second book I’ve read by this British poet and novelist. After reading The Dead Sit Round in a Ring (a rather irresistible, title you must admit), I said to myself, “Enough! Enough of this relentless mortification of human flesh! Give me The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency! Give me The Little Engine That Could! Anything but this – this unadulterated savagery!”

Okay, so what happened?

I was browsing at my “local” – branch library, not pub! – when I came upon the second entry in Lawrence’s series featuring DS Stella Mooney. I recalled my revulsion at some of the goings-on in the first book, but at the same time, I remembered this author’s terse, powerful descriptions, terrific ear for dialogue, and uncanny skill at ratcheting up the suspense. In addition to all this, I find Stella Mooney an extremely compelling character. A woman in a predominantly male preserve (though seemingly less so, in these times), she treads a fine line between toughness and compassion. When I say tough, I mean almost to the point of ruthlessness; if and when you read Nothing Like the Night, you’ll be amazed at what she does while trying to defend herself from dangerous thugs. And this – right at the beginning of the novel!

So anyway, my hand drifted toward the book, I took it off the shelf, I read the flyleaf, I checked it out…and Dear Reader, I raced through it! Was it repugnant? Yes – in many places. Was it riveting? Same answer.

I would be very interested to hear from other readers of crime fiction who find themselves powerfully drawn to (dare I say, seduced by?) narratives that contain the kind of brutality that they abhor and would ordinarily shun. Do you resist the compulsion to keep reading? Justify same by virtue of literary merit? Take a long shower afterwards?

I’d like to offer one further thought, not so much as justification but as an effort to understand: Sometimes, in art as in life, violence precedes some kind of revelation about the human condition. Even if the ability to triumph is not made manifest, the ability to endure, and to retain the essence of one’s humanity in the process, is. (I am actually thinking at the moment of Guillermo del Toro’s astounding – but in places really difficult to watch – film, Pan’s Labyrinth.)

4 Comments

  1. Barb Seboda said,

    In terms of fascination/revulsion, I feel the same way about Patricia Cornwell’s books: intrigued by the character of Scarpetta and the technology employed, appalled (and eventually skipping over) some of the gross cruelty and graphic descriptions. However, Cornwell solved the problem (for me, that is) by becoming so aburd in her plotting and evil villains (not to mention her book outside of the Scarpetta series in which a fish talked) that I’ve stopped reading her books.

  2. Angie Boyter said,

    This phenomenon is not just in the mystery genre. There is a lot of popular contemporary SF that I just can’t stomach , e.g., Charles Stross. The same is true of movies. I do not believe this is a harmless fad. Since I am over 60 I can say with no apologies that I think our contemporary culture, by exposing poeple to such cruelty in their “pleasure” activities, is making people ever more inclined to cruelty and violence in real life.. Did you hear about the incident this past week where a car hit (but fortunately did not seriously injure) a child and a mob dragged a PASSENGER (not even the driver) from the car and killed him? I cannot believe there is not a relationship between the media cruelty and violence and this kind of activity.

  3. nana mebus said,

    i am reading now The dead sit round in a ring-by David Lawrence
    it is a wonderful read, the poet in him shows himself on every page and as for violence inspired by books one only has to look back at history lets say the roman times (to be safe) where most people did not read crime or even read at all – cruelty was there at its peak- sorry , but i am all for a good detailed description and if it is too much I just skip and go ahead.

  4. A Tale of Two Book Discussions; or, a ‘Dragon Tattoo’ immersion experience « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] similar to Lisbeth Salander, but we dismissed those books (unfairly?) as dated. There are the Stella Mooney novels by David Lawrence. This is a seemingly short-lived series, intriguing though violent. Stella has a fraught love life […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: