An Essay by Jill Edmondson
“A dirty book is rarely dusty.”
Now that I have your attention, let’s start off with a couple of disconnects. First, the claim that “sex sells.” Next is the recognition that in crime fiction readers can find detailed, graphic, visceral descriptions of death and dying, but not of making love, fucking or fornicating, whatever you want to call it.
What’s up with that? How is it that in books where bullet wounds and blood splatters abound, there is so little attention paid to sex?
Perhaps some mystery writers are too shy to write about sex. Last year on her Skeleton Keys blog, crime fiction author Jen J. Danna hinted at her discomfort when it comes to putting the wild thing in her novels. She pointed out that readers never assume that when she writes of violent death, she’s writing from first-hand experience, but when it comes to sex, well…
Holy smokes, I can really speak to that! In my first mystery novel, Blood and Groom (2009), my protagonist Sasha Jackson, who is newly licensed and broke, makes ends meet by working part-time at a phone sex line. In my third book, The Lies Have It (2011), Sasha’s investigating a murder connected to the S & M fetish world.
Now let me tell you a couple of things about Sasha: She plays the drums, sings in a band now and then, can’t drive, can’t cook, and frequently breaks into places she doesn’t belong. But, no one ever asks me if I do any of those things. Yet when it comes to handcuffs, foot fetishes, or doggie-style role playing, well, people ask me–often quite bluntly–if those passages are based on my own experiences. Am I a dom or a sub? How many pairs of red stilettos do I own? What was the freakiest call I ever got on the phone sex line?
Sheesh. None of those things are autobiographical, but for the record, I do break into at least two houses, a church, and one office building every week.
A few years ago, on the Do Some Damage blog the topic of sex (or lack thereof) in crime fiction was discussed at length by both readers and writers. The general feeling seemed to be that “sex rarely adds value to the story,” or that a sex scene “stops the action,” and that they’re “too hard to balance.” Many folks contend that if readers are interested in throbbing loins and firm mounds of flesh topped with plump ripe cherries, they’d just pick up a romance novel.
Hold on a second… I enjoy diving into a gripping whodunit, but I wouldn’t mind a bit of naughtiness to spice things up now and again. Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to peek between the chapters and find out just how much of a wildcat Mike Hammer was in the sack? One hopes that he’d live up to his name. Aren’t you curious to know whether Kinsey ever screws in any position but the missionary? And does she keep her turtleneck on? What about Susan Silverman? My guess is that she freeze-dries her hair before tickling the ivories with Spenser. And I bet Scudder and Elaine’s favourite position is the reverse cowgirl…
Author Andrew E. Kaufman contemplated the horizontal boogie in a post on the Crime Fiction Collective blog. He wondered whether it was “a crime in crime fiction to deprive characters the pleasures of the flesh.” He concluded that it wasn’t, and opted to omit sex. Some authors and readers claim that sex scenes can interrupt the flow of an otherwise absorbing whodunit, or as Kaufman puts it: “if some killer’s got a bullet with [the sleuth’s] name on it, [the sleuth is] not going to be thinking about getting it on.” Fair point. But investigations hit snags, searches yield dead ends, and cases get derailed. And besides, the sleuth eats, sleeps and does other quotidian things, so why can’t the PI have a roll in the hay as well?
Bestselling thriller author Eric Lustbader is all in favour of sex in crime fiction. Now that’s my kind of guy! On the Bookish.com website, Lustbader says: “Sex is part of life. It stands to reason then that it would be part of my characters’ lives.” Hear, hear! Lustbader expands on his position by saying: “During sex, people are taken out of themselves – sometimes out of their comfort zone. Something elemental is awakened during sex: barriers are broken… secrets are cast up into the light. Through these revelations, we learn so much more about the characters and… we come to care about them more deeply.”
That’s exactly the point: Readers need to care about the characters if they’re to continue reading. And readers care about characters who have depth. Sex adds another dimension to the personality on the page; it gives us one more thing to know about them, and a juicy bit at that. Imagine how amusing it would be to do surveillance on our favourite sleuths; just imagine what we might learn. For example, consider Nero Wolfe, a character so well defined that fans of the series can easily describe his pyjamas, his orchids, and the old brownstone on West 35th. Given this larger than life character, with his refined tastes, grand appetites, and exacting standards, one can’t help but wonder when, where and how Nero got his rocks off. Or if he did. Maybe Fritz delivered more than trays of beer…
Authors are forever being reminded that mystery readers expect verisimilitude. Editors and writing instructors repeatedly push novelists to flesh-out their characters, in part by creating detailed backgrounds and thorough profiles: Does your character prefer Coke or Pepsi? What’s your character’s zodiac sign? Did you protagonist have a happy childhood? How would your character rank on a Meyers-Briggs test? Which political party does your hero support? If all those things are part and parcel of adding dimension to your characters, then why can’t they also have sex? Why can’t they feel horny? Why can’t they be frustrated at not getting any?
Do readers ever wonder whether Elvis Cole has staying power, or if Stephanie Plum is a squealer, or whether Travis McGee uses Viagra, or if Archy McNally prefers morning sex? My imagination tells me that the answer to those last four questions is “yes.”
When I was starting my series, I made a point of including sex in it, even if only indirectly. It was a deliberate choice to make Sasha a character with a fully realized sexuality. This doesn’t necessarily mean that my books have an abundance of hot and heavy passages. In fact, in the debut novel, Sasha is single and hasn’t had her muffin buttered in a while, but that doesn’t stop her from thinking about sex quite a bit. In a scene when she is interviewing a very handsome witness, her internal monologue goes as follows: “I was only half listening to what he was saying, letting my mind wander instead to what the size of his penis might be. He had big hands and his fingers were long and broad…” Hmmm…
Sasha finally gets laid in the second book when flirtations with Derek, a professional acquaintance, move to the next level. After an evening of wining and dining, sure enough they end up sixty-nining. As Sasha describes it: “I pushed him back onto the bed and spent the rest of the night treating his body like an amusement park ride. When it was over, we high-fived each other.” Attagirl!
However, in book three, Sasha’s back in the desert because Derek’s away on a business trip. During his absence, she’s keenly aware that her physical needs are not being sated, so Sasha, um, takes matters into her own hands:
Eventually, the call with Derek took on a naughtier tone. That could be blamed on the headiness of a new romance, but it was more likely the fault of raging, frustrated pheromones. We ended up having phone sex. I can honestly say, it was the first time I’ve ever had phone sex when a) I wasn’t getting paid for it, and b) I wasn’t faking a damn thing. It took me a long while to fall asleep.
The reader in me isn’t ready to go to sleep yet either. I’m eager to spend the night with a dick, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a one night stand, or the start of a torrid affair. As long as you can get it up, baby, you’ll be able to keep me up.
Essay respectfully submitted by Jill Edmondson, November 2013.