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.

57 thoughts on “Crime fiction prologues – love them or hate them?

  1. What a fascinating post, Mrs. P. I think you’re quite right that prologues are more and more common. And I’ve heard that editors and publishers are increasingly expecting them. But for me, the question always is: does it serve the story? If a prologue doesn’t serve the story – really serve it – then it’s not necessary and can even detract from it. If it’s integral to the plot, then it can work. I do have to agree with you, though, about prologues with a lot of protracted brutality. That puts me right off a story.

    • Thanks, Margot. You put it really well. I love your question ‘does it serve the story?’ – a very good one to ask in various contexts when writing, I would imagine.

  2. It has become quite a thing, lately, I’ve noticed that too. And the fascinating thing is that agents and writing instructors keep telling debut authors to avoid them – contrary to all of the examples they see in the shops!
    I voted for ‘I don’t mind them’ in the above, but really need to qualify that statement. I actively dislike them if they are deliberately violent or ‘clickbait’ type of ‘reeling them in’ efforts. I like them if they add an additional layer of mystery or a bit of a gentler but intriguing back story or something which I am confident will be explained later.

    • Aha, so it’s not just me… Thanks for that insight into the advice agents and writing instructors are giving writers in relation to prologues, which really does seem to be at odds with what’s actually happening in the marketplace. The proliferation of grittier prologues still begs the question of whether these are what readers really want – rather worrying if so…

      Thanks for qualifying your choice in the poll – very interesting, and I have the same kinds of preferences.

  3. When I read this type of book I prefer to walk through the story discovering the motives on the way. I only know Mankell from BBC4 and there the prologue told you only the crime. The real story followed. This isn’t what you asked but maybe it will answer you.

    • Thanks, Christine. I can see how plunging the reader into some action at the beginning of the novel would be appealing. It’s the levels of violence that put me off. The obvious counter-argument is that it’s a crime novel, so violence can hardly be a surprise! And I accept that to a certain degree. But if the violence feels really gratuitous, it puts me off straight away (whether in the prologue or beyond).

  4. This is such a good post, Mrs P! From my perspective as a writer of crime novels they work in several different ways:

    1. They let the reader get a head start on the detectives.
    2. They set up the themes and key non-series characters for the book.
    3. If you get them right they are intriguing and can be misleading – if that’s your goal, ideally a reader should be able to go back to the prologue after reading the end and find something they missed the first time round.
    4. They vary the opening of each novel in the series while remaining true to genre. (I’ve written one with a non-prologue, non-crime opener to focus on the series characters and years later an editor told me she’d have made me cut it!)

    And from my perspective as a reader of crime they flag up the books I don’t want to read. I heard an author read a prologue at an event once and vowed, quietly, that I would not read any of their work. And I haven’t.

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Jane – it’s brilliant to get an author perspective. I hadn’t really thought about the prologue issue from the angles you mention in 1 and 3, so thank you for broadening out the discussion. And 4 presumably means that you revisit past prologues every time you write a new one, in order to keep things varied. I’m imagining a rolodex of prologues on crime writers’ desks!

      Your anecdote at the end shows how make-or-break prologues can be. If I’ve been sent a review copy, I’ll always move a little bit beyond the prologue even if I’ve hated it, because sometimes the main body of the novel is substantially better (I reckon these are the ones where the prologue’s been added in afterwards at the request of editor/publisher). But if I’m in a bookshop browsing and don’t like the prologue, then that’s it…game over.

    • I enjoy your books and agree with your comments. I think sometimes a prologue can serve the same function as overture in an opera; it gives you an idea of the themes and a “taste” of what’s to follow. It also takes a little pressure off the first chapter – this may not be a problem for an established author as your readers trust you and know you’ll deliver the thrills and the tension – but for a newbie there’s such a big need to impress early on.

  5. As a reader, I usually dislike prologues because I’ve found them different in tone, don’t add much to the story, very violent and utterly useless. Sometimes I feel they are just tacked on. As for bad prologue’s leading to a bad book, I disliked Arne Dahl’s prologue in ‘Misterioso’ and it put me off reading it for a long time. I did pick back it up after a reader gave it a good review and then I finished it and enjoyed it. If a book has a prologue with a bunch of italics I usually don’t buy the book. I dislike that kind of opening in a book. Just my two cents.

    • Thanks, Keishon – a very valuable two cents!

      I’d forgotten about that whole business of putting a prologue in italics. They’re more difficult for my middle-aged eyes to read, so I don’t like those! Not quite sure what the italics are supposed to add, either.

      The account of your reading experience with ‘Misterioso’ is very interesting. The prologue very nearly cost the book a reader, and I’m guessing many readers wouldn’t come back even if they read a positive review.

      • Italics are very much in fashion for whole sections of books written from someone’s POV – sometimes a murderer but also sometimes the investigator – especially during particularly psychotic episodes or times of confusion in the investigation. Substantial quantities of diary entries can also be presented this way in books. I agree that italics are hard on the eyes and the constantly changing format through the book irritates, rather than interests, me.

  6. From a reviewer’s point of view, I think the function of the prologue has altered recently. Some authors are using them as a gory punch in the stomach – presumably as a way of grabbing readers. That presupposes, of course, that we all read the genre for violence – and I bet we don’t! There’s much more to crime fic than that. I go for the ‘less is more’ theory when it comes to writing.

    I’ve seen prologues used more as teasers or flashbacks – and sometimes that works. But nine times out of ten, you could call the prologue chapter one and not lose anything!

    • Thanks, lartonmedia! ‘A gory punch to the stomach’ – beautifully put. The question you raise about whether we read crime fiction for violence goes to the heart of the matter for me. Based on totally unsystematic discussions with crime reader friends, I don’t think we do (unless they are too afraid to admit it). And I agree that most prologues could just as well be called chapter 1.

  7. If authors/agents/publishers want to create a ‘hook’ to draw readers in, I would far rather be intrigued than horrified. Intrigue would definitely make me want to keep reading but a helping of ‘Ugh’ brings a ‘So what, get on with the story!’ response. I am much more interested in the characters, setting and how the story is told than the grue (if that word exists) quota. I have really enjoyed books by Leif Perrson who as I recall has a low grue quota but good plots and characters and a fair helping of humour, a lot of it black!

    • I’m with you all the way, MRo, and I’m glad you’ve raised the notion of intrigue, which we haven’t talked about yet. I like prologues that make me want to read on – the one I mention at the end of the post is a case in point, because it dangles the promise of a cold case being solved before you. That’s like catnip to me as a reader.

      I’m a huge fan of Persson as well. I haven’t been through his novels to see if he has any prologues, but would be willing to bet he does a good job if so.

  8. When a prologue with gory bits sets the tone for the following narrative, often what is lost is the sense of the reader’s cumulative dread of something ahead yet to be discovered. This is more important in the “psychological” thriller, but perhaps less so in the police procedural. But both can be successfully combined with a cold case history provided in the prologue, but the hint of a copycat crime suggested, as in the recent Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama.

    • Thanks, Jaime – that’s a really interesting point. If your prologue is dialled up to 11, where is there left to go?

      Will have a look at Six Four – I’d forgotten that had a prologue. Thanks!

  9. Really interesting to see this post and the comments afterwards – thank you.

    This is something my writer friends and I have been discussing with some urgency recently. I have put a prologue into my latest work and kept it really short deliberately (one page). It’s a scene that plays with the reader’s perspective a little and stir things up as they read what follows. No gratuitous violence but hopefully raising some disturbing story questions about the characters and their motivation – is that the “right” way to use a prologue? but I also wanted the story to start and end with the same scene, slipping into a different perspective from the main character (and tense) and calling into question who is the “unreliable” narrator.

    I think you just have to go with what feels right story wise – doesn’t matter if you call it a prologue or chapter 1 or whatever – its about placing the right story bit in the right place for the picture you want to give the reader and how much knowledge you want them to have at that point or for what follows. You are the puppet master leading your reader on a path.

    • Hi Sophie, and thanks for your comment. It’s really interesting to hear about the decision-making processes that you’re making as a writer, and I like the idea of the prologue raising some questions for the reader to reflect on as they move through the novel.

      Starting and ending with the same scene but from a different perspective calls to mind the film ‘Brief Encounter’ – what appears to be an everyday encounter at the beginning is revealed to be a heart-breaking moment of farewell near the end. It gets me every time because it’s so well done. More recently in crime fiction, Westo’s The Wednesday Club does something similar – a brief prologue at the beginning takes on a great deal more significance by the end, and provides the novel with a satisfying circular structure. I’ll have to add that one to my list of effective crime prologues…

  10. Absolutely fascinating to read Jane Casey’s comments here – I’m a huge fan of the Maeve Kerrigan series. And I except her prologues from all my comments below!

    I wonder if the trend towards ultra-gruesome prologues is tied to shortening attention spans? (You can add *The Dry* by Jane Harper to your list of examples). I recently read in a review of *The Bestseller Code* that bestsellers are trending towards shorter everything: shorter words, shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs, shorter chapters. I personally find this disheartening but what can we expect when our whole world seems to go around in 140-character tweets? Patience is no longer a virtue and that includes patience for getting to the crime scene in a novel. So, now that you’ve pointed out the proliferation of the prologue, it doesn’t seem that surprising to me. That said, I think sometimes the device works beautifully and serves to get my attention. I seem to recall a Ruth Rendell book from sometime in the 90s that had a particularly well-done (but shocking) prologue about the discovery of several bodies around a feast-laden dinner table. It stayed with me.

    As for crime fiction aficionados reading for gore or not, I’m firmly in the “not” category. I can’t watch any gory movies, but for my beloved crime fiction, I can turn a blind eye to a surprising amount of unpleasantness. A few of my favorite authors, however, have crossed a line for me and I’ve never gone back to their books – Jo Nesbo comes to mind. I think he’s fabulous and I loved Harry Hole but somewhere along the line (I think it might have been in The Snowman but don’t hold me to it), he had some scenes I just couldn’t handle. I would prefer a writer leave something to my imagination rather than putting images in my head that I’m never going to be able to take out.

    • Thanks very much for your comment, catbirdfarm. You say much here that I agree with wholeheartedly.

      Your point about shortening attention spans is a really interesting one, and I think there’s definitely mileage in that argument. I’ve certainly heard authors on panels openly admit that they’re writing in shorter chapters and sentences for that reason. So a related factor might be increased competitiveness in the publishing market, and the perceived need to pull readers into the narrative from the very first word when browsing. That lack of patience you mention again.

      I’m with you on the gore. I’ve had problems with Jo Nesbo novels myself for that reason – the violence became almost cartoon-like in places. I liked his recent book Midnight Sun, though (set in Lapland). The lack of gratuitous violence was definitely a factor in my increased enjoyment!

    • Hi Catbird Farm – just wanted to tell you that The Snowman was the novel which froze my affection for Jo Nesbo’s thrillers. For me it went over the top in too many and unnecessary ways.

  11. An interlinked comment from Dev_2014 on Twitter – reproduced here with permission: ‘I don’t skip them [prologues], but they add nothing for me. Query if it’s TV’s influence: the pre-credits sting?’ 1/2 ‘I genuinely think TV is influencing how crime is written, speaking to that audience’ 2/2

  12. Many thanks to crime author and blogger Vicky Newham, who reminded me that James Oswald had spoken in interview about his original prologue for ‘Natural Causes’ (the first in the ‘Detective McLean’ series), and his decision to remove it following discussion with his editor at Penguin. Vicky was kind enough to find the interview link for me over at Writers&Artists. You can see what he had to say about the prologue under question 7:

    I’ve heard James discuss the decision in a panel at CrimeFest as well. Interestingly, the prologue was eventually added as an ‘extra’ at the end of the novel for readers to look at if they wanted to. I read it and thought the decision to omit it was absolutely spot on, for the reasons James outlines in his interview.

  13. Interesting poll and subsequent comments. I’m not a fan and have noticed recently going back to read the prologue after I’ve finished book to see how they fitted with the story I’d read. Which seems daft!
    As someone who doesn’t read the ‘blurb’ about books because I think they give too much away I feel they can mould my expectations when I want to come at the story ‘proper’ with no expectations.

    • Thanks, suzigun – I completely get your point of view. It can feel like there’s no subtlety or nuance, and too much is being given away. I prefer a steady build as well.

  14. I am with Margot both as a reader and as a writer. The only question is ‘does it serve the story?’ I recently read a very good crime novel with a prologue that added nothing at all the story. I have sometimes used a prologue, sometimes not. I think it should intrigue the reader, draw them in, perhaps establish a theme. It’s especially useful if you want to tell the reader about something significant that has happened some time before the main action of the story. But what I really hate is the kind of prologue you have described: the gratuitous gore and sadistic violence. But there is one advantage: I then know what to expect and I won’t read on or buy the book. I have grown increasingly uneasy about this and there are writers I won’t read any more because of it.

    • Thanks, Christine – hearing author-reader perspectives like yours are genuinely illuminating.

      I’m guessing that most of us have an unofficial list of writers that we avoid, and I wouldn’t mind betting that their handling of violence is a key factor in landing on that list.

  15. I’m in favour of having a prologue, as I think it gives the reader a ‘taster’,and as my reading time is limited, I can quickly decide whether to try a new author or not, as there are now so many new books coming out every month which I’m never going to have the time to read. With big money to be made, I’m sure publishers/marketing etc have a hand in this. Those prologues with ‘high velocity’ violence/gore serves as a warning of what the reader might expect, and hence won’t buy/read, but there is a very big audience out there who wants just such books. Personally, I enjoy a good crime/thriller with gore/violence Jo Nesbo is a favourite, but I can’t read anything supernatural as the unknown gives me sleepless nights!

    • Hello Karen, and thanks for your comment! I was hoping you’d arrive and put forward a different point of view 😀

      The prologue as taster – yes, I can see how that works, especially given that most people are strapped for time and the number of books out there is enormous.

      And Jo Nesbo’s success does suggest that there are many readers who enjoy or at the very least are not bothered by the gore factor. I’m just a little puzzled as I haven’t come across many of them myself – and I really do talk to a lot of crime fans. Perhaps some readers don’t like to admit that they like the violence? Do you know lots who do?

      I’d also be intrigued to know what mechanisms publishers use to satisfy themselves that violence sells. Sales figures, focus groups, reader comments?

  16. I do not like much violence or gore or “women as victims” of brutality plot lines. And I’m not a fan of prologues, especially those in italics, which often means the psychopathic killer is giving his perspective. Or some form of violence is being shown.
    And if I get a book with a prologue that’s full of violence with or without italics, I skip it. I skipped the first chapter of one of Stieg Larsson’s books because it was so brutal and the victim was a young teenager at the time.
    However, I just read Helene Tursten’s latest Irene Huss book. There is a short prologue; a woman is out walking her dog and the dog finds a dead body. Interesting point to announce at the book’s beginning. It wasn’t violent. It just stated a fact. That’s OK.
    But most are either a killer’s perspective or some horror going on which I don’t want to read. So I skip the prologue.
    And I wonder about “best-sellers” and the points above, that everything is shorter. I had a spell in the summer where I read several “women in peril”-type “best-sellers” which took a few days to read, required no thinking. All I had to do was turn pages and I quickly read a book with nothing to think about except if the ending twist made no sense. (That happens! One should be able to think that a twist makes some rational sense in the plot.)
    I worry about what many people are reading, and if people just want diversion and distraction from life’s problems, and not to think.

    • Hi kathy d – I recently read that Huss prologue as well, and thought it was fine. The dog goes on to have a nice role in the book as well 🙂

      I have sympathy with people wanting to switch off completely. That’s very understandable at the moment, and I can see that fiction functions as a cathartic safe space where things you normally wouldn’t experience as part of everyday life get acted out. But as ever, and as you say, it’s a question of degree, particularly in relation to violence.

  17. I thought Davidings and Jane Casey’s comments most interesting, but all thoughts were fascinating. Recently I read a book whereby we see what happens to a character, posted as missing, in the prologue. Only one character could’ve been there. However, the author used misleading language about the sex of one of the characters involved.- for example, they reacted very passively to accusations, used what we see as typically feminine body language, and verbal language, when in fact it was a man. Also, the rest of the book was narrated by females. When I suspected – about 20% of the way in – I looked back at the prologue and saw how the author had attempted to mislead us. However in this case, it wasn’t good enough, as it merely confirmed my suspicions. But it was interesting to see what they were trying to do. It was interesting to hear what Dev_2014 said – although I see it as a trailer, almost (back to the Amazon samples!) And like suzigun, I’ve pften gone back and read them again! It is certainly on the increase – almost essential nowl, I sometimes think! And not always required!

    • Thanks, crimeworm! The example you describe sounds really interesting. It’s a nice, ambitious idea, and what a shame that it didn’t quite come off. I’m also imagining how carefully that prologue must have had to be written. The reader will probably skate over it quite quickly the first time, but if they come back a second time, as you did, then it needs to stand up to forensic investigation, and it’s an all-or-nothing game.

      Prologue as trailer – that’s a really good analogy.

  18. Interesting post Katharina.
    Curious to find out that a majority of anwers seems to care little about prologues, also a majority believe prologues have a useful narrative function, and an ample majority think prologues don’t really have much influence on their bying decisions.
    It looks like as if our anwers are not very consistent. We don’t care, but find them useful and don’t influence our buying decisions.

    • Hello Jose Ignacio. Last time I looked, the top level answers seemed quite neutral, but things got a little more interesting on the levels below. I’ll pop in and have a look again shortly. It would be nice to have over 100 responses so that we can talk properly in percentage terms. I’ll post the final results after the polls have run a week.

    • Hello again, Jose Ignacio! I agree that we could be looking at a fad, but some factors suggested in the comments above might indicate a more permanent trend – for example, the rise in readers using Amazon samples or the ‘look inside’ function to make buying decisions.

      I totally agree with you that everything can be done well or badly, and that prologues are no exception. Quality will out!

  19. Intrigued by your piece on Prologues I did a quick look at my bookshelves. Out of 200 crime fiction titles published in the late 1980s 32 had Prologues and 2 had Preludes – so this does not seem to be a very recent phenomenon. From a personal (aspiring author) viewpoint the pressure to get the reader hooked within the first page – or three – is so strong that sometimes only a Prologue will do.
    From a reader’s POV, a Prologue can help me to make up my mind as to whether I’m likely to enjoy the book. Not failsafe but a good indicator.

    • Wow, Raili – thanks so much for carrying out this research. 200 novels is a really decent sample, and on the basis of your count would give us 17% with prologues/preludes. It would be interesting to compare a sample of 200 contemporary crime novels, both in terms of the number of prologues and their content/tone.

      I’d love to know how many of the 34 prologues you found were really ‘gritty’ – e.g. showed crimes being committed from the victim or perpetrator point of view. But obviously I understand that you may have limits on your time!!!

      Thanks very much for your comment. These dual author-reader perspectives are really illuminating.

      • Time limits delayed my “report” but anything to oblige, Mrs Peabody.
        These 34 Prologues/Preludes fell, roughly, in seven categories: Giving intimation of violence to come (7); Description of a violent act or acts (2); Intriguing (5); Flashback to WW2 (4); Crime takes place (6); Introducing characters & setting (8); A statement of intent (2).
        The violence described was not graphic or gory in any of the above and only in one was the POV that of the victim. For me, as a reader, the intriguing Prologues were the most effective ones – i.e, made me want to reread the book. The surprise was to see the number of books where the Prologue depicted an event during WW2, followed by a first chapter in late 1980s.
        I must thank you for spurring me to do this; we’re having to downsize and I need to let this library go later this year, it was good to revisit these old friends and acquaintances.

      • Fantastic report, Raili – thanks so much for taking the time, and for providing so much detail about your findings. Love your categories and analysis.

        The relative lack of gory prologues suggests that they may have become more violent over time (though more sampling from other years/decades would be needed to track this trend). How interesting, too, that ‘historical’ prologues were relatively prominent. This might partly be due to the 40th anniversary of the end of WW2 in 1985, which was marked by public commemorations that received lots of media coverage. There was lots of discussion among historians about *how* that past should be remembered around that time as well, which may have influenced writers.

        Thank you again, and I’m glad you enjoyed the trip down memory lane 🙂

  20. Well, interesting discussion. As I said, I don’t prefer prologues, but if they’re written without fierce brutality or gore and actually draw one into the story, fine. Otherwise, not so much.
    But I am intrigued by the comment above about the behavior of one gender in a book. These days, it is well-recognized that mannerisms and characters of genders are no longer stereotypes — in society and more and more, in books. There is not one manner of behavior for women, another for men. If one looks at real women, one sees variations in demeanor, tone, mannerisms. Also, gender identify is fluid. Women’s personalities and behavior differ from each other’s and so do men’s. Consciousness is being raised on this by the LGBTQ community in the States and around the world. And fiction is catching up.

    • Absolutely. I haven’t read the book in question, but what’s interesting (it seems) is the way that the author uses assumptions about gender with the deliberate intention of misleading the reader. He/she is relying on the reader understanding certain (stereotypical) ‘codes’ to make an assumption about the gender of an individual, which is then later flipped. Perhaps that won’t be possible ten or twenty years down the line when more nuanced understandings of gender are the norm…

  21. True. I think in some ways those notions of gender identity are changing over here — except those (ahem) in Washington want to drag it all backwards for LGBT people, women, people of color, immigrants. We’ll see how it affects literature.
    And I don’t mean to cast aspersions on those who want escapist reading. I sometimes do, too, and in August I raced through several women-in-peril thrillers because I needed an escape.
    By the way, The Girl on the Train is a far better movie than book, thanks to go screenwriting and photo technique, and the acting of Emily Blunt.
    I’m trying to read Zadie Smith’s Swing Time. I like her writing, but was pulled back to keep reading an Ian Ranking book, a bit easier, not so much thinking involved. And, well, even though I don’t like reading about gangster life and turf wars, Rankin is a good writer.

  22. The violent prologue is quite a trend — the first example in the post is similar to the opening in Volker Kutscher’s Der Nasse Fisch – although the victim there takes his own life to avoid even more horrific torture. As others have commented, prologues can be a very effective way to establish a theme, set a mood, or pose a confusing question (how does the prologue connect with the main narrative?). My objection is to the sensational violence. It dilutes the narrative and reduces the work to more of a genre piece. Not to say that violence can’t serve a larger theme or say something about the morality of the characters involved, but so often it seems to be used for lurid effect. And it is surprisingly common in crime novels in Europe now — in part due to the success of the Stieg Larsson novels?

    • Morning, Robie! Ah yes, I’d forgotten about Kutscher’s Babylon Berlin prologue, and remember that I found it very difficult to read (and wasn’t convinced that it had added a great deal once I’d finished the book).

      I completely agree with your comments on the use of violence in prologues (and beyond).

  23. I agree with the previous writer about violent prologues and it being a trend (hopefully, a brief one). Regarding Stieg Larsson’s trilogy which I liked in the main, but one book began with a horrible prologue about torture of Lizbeth Salander, and I did not read a word of it. It was horrible enough to read about her past abuse, and then to see it restated in the trial in book three, but to have to read about the acts themselves and her as victim, nope, not for me.

    • Fair enough, kathy d. I remember the Larsson trilogy coming up in a Mrs P blog post discussion the depiction of women and violence in crime (quite a long time ago now). I seem to recall that there was quite a divided reader-response to the trilogy.

  24. I did not mind Lizbeth Salander’s retaliation for both her own and her mother’s abuse, but I did not want to read about particular abuse of her when she was totally vulnerable, young and alone.

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