Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Guest Post: Jeanne On Animal Deaths in Mysteries

Last month Jeanne of the Bristol Public Library offered a few thoughts on mystery pet peeves. Today she offers her thoughts on the issue of animal deaths in mysteries. Like Jeanne, I have noticed the complaints over animal deaths in mysteries as well as the role of social media in spreading pictures of things that most do not want to ever see. Unlike Jeanne, not only have I seen the animal stuff, I do have a reference for someone killed by gunshot as well as one by stabbing. Is that why animal deaths do not bother me more than human deaths? I have no idea. I have some thoughts on this topic myself so down the road a bit I may offer them. In the meantime, consider what Jeanne has to say and feel free to continue the conversation in the comments…

On the mystery list DorothyL, readers will occasionally complain about the death of an animal in a book.  Some authors will respond by bemoaning readers who get upset when an animal is killed.  They’ve had editors ask them to take out an animal’s death, otherwise the books won’t sell to the cozy readers. In an issue of Mystery Scene Magazine a couple of years back, author Joanna Carl wrote an essay entitled “Death of a Furry Animal.” She described reader displeasure with the animal deaths, including an unpleasant encounter a fellow author had with a reader over the death of a feral cat. She deliberately wrote in a death scene of a rattlesnake to see if that would cause reader ire but no one mentioned it, drawing the conclusion that it’s only furry and cute animals whose deaths spark controversy.

So why do readers get so upset about the death of a pet in a mystery?  As authors have pointed out, people are getting murdered left and right, but if an animal dies the author will never hear the end of it.  Why is that?

Obviously I don’t have THE answer to this burning question, but I do have some answers, at least as far as I’m concerned.

Yes, I’m afraid I’m one of those people who doesn’t like it when an animal dies. I have refused to read books because I know an animal dies.

When I’m reading about someone killed by a gunshot or dying of cyanide poisoning, I don’t (thank God!) have a frame of reference for that.  And if I don’t want to read about death agonies or explicit descriptions of dismemberment, I simply skip those parts. I don’t have any immediate, visceral images to shock me. 

With animals, I do. Like it or not, I’ve seen injured and abused animals.  There’s the dog tied in the back yard with its ribs showing because its owners aren’t home enough to know it has no food or water.  There’s the cat with only one eye because someone kicked it in the head so hard the eyeball ruptured.  There’s the deer hit by car trying desperately to get to its feet, its eyes rolling wildly in terror. Even dead animals evoke a reaction: there’s always a catch of breath when I spy some bundle of fur on the highway, be it possum or rabbit.

And with the advent of the internet and social media, it’s even harder to avoid.  There’s the guy who posted a video of him throwing scalding water on a cat.  There’s the dog beaten and thrown in the garbage.  There’s –well, anyone on social media has a litany of abused animals.  It’s to the point where some people have requesting folks NOT post such pictures not only because it upsets people but because it may give abusers new ideas.

So when an author writes about a dead animal, I can easily visualize the scene without trying.  It doesn’t do any good to skip the description because I’ve seen enough that my mind fills in the blanks. 

Saying that the dog or cat is a stray and not a beloved pet doesn’t really help because many of my pets have started out as strays. One of the loves of my life showed up as a tattered, toothless orange tabby who settled in my yard because he was too weak to go further. 

When asked about an animal death, authors tend to respond with some variation of it’s needed to show how ruthless the murderer is, or to ratchet up tension.  That is certainly one way to do it.  Is it the only way?  That’s a question only the author can answer, but I will add that Sharon Bolton once terrified me with the appearance of a pine cone. That takes talent.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that I have indeed given up on reading some authors whose books have animal deaths.  One I have kept reading but I read warily, withholding most emotional involvement. Fool me once….

If an author feels that the death of an animal is crucial to the book, then that’s what should be written.  I’m not here to tell anyone what to write; but I reserve the right not to read a book I will find upsetting.


cncbooks said...

Jeanne, I'm curious. Do you have the same feeling if the animal death is not at the hands of the bad guy or if it's not a malicious killing? Let's say a pet cat is set upon by a dog when she's out and about (leaving aside the issue of letting your cat roam). If you know that's in a story, do you decide not to read the book?

I kind of straddle the fence. I don't want to read about a human doing violent or extremely neglectful things to any animal but, if the act is offscene and I don't have to see the details, I can accept it.

Lelia Taylor

BPL Ref said...

Much less so if it's not malicious or off scene. My main problem is that I have an unfortunate memory for such things. For example, I can tell you that in one Tony Hillerman book that I read at least 12 years ago (and possibly 20 years ago) that a bad guy goes to a pet store and gets a Siamese cat which he releases to distract dogs. He hopes the cat makes it. That's the whole scene. I can tell you nothing else about the book or the bad guy.

In a part of the discussion on DorothyL awhile back, someone replied to a poster saying something along the lines of "Then I assume you won't read Girl With the Dragon Tattoo because of what happens to the cat." It was an aside, but I have never read that series because of that. Sometimes I can get past it, sometimes I can't.

I don't even like Sweeney's "Cats in Jeopardy" series because I worry too much about the cats to enjoy the books.

Sometimes it's tied to what is going on in my life at the time but not always. I can't say why things like that stick in my head but they do. I do sometimes go ahead and read a book but as I said, I tread warily.

I'm not trying to be difficult. ;-)

Susan Oleksiw said...

I will generally avoid any story in which an animal is tortured or murdered not only because it's unpleasant but also because it's unnecessary. There are many ways to illustrate the low or vile character of someone without resorting to animal abuse. I also avoid reading books that are overtly violent and depict women being humiliated and abused. I find it repulsive, and I honestly wonder how editors can read dozens of these mss and publish them. But that's me. Thank you for a clear discussion of the issue.