Sex in crime fiction: 'Writing good sex is a tricky business'

Crime writer Steph Broadribb, whose debut novel ‘Deep Down Dead’ is out now, asks other crime writers whether sex and detective fiction mix and takes a look at memorable sex scenes in the genre

 

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Let’s talk about sex. Sex in crime fiction, specifically. OK, so I’ll go first – I’m not embarrassed.

There are a couple of sex scenes in my debut novel Deep Down Dead. One is more of a cutaway as the action happens, but the other one, towards the end of the book, is very much the action as it happens: my protagonist Lori Anderson riding a male character cowgirl-style. I put it in because the scene felt right for the story and (I hope) conveys something about the characters, adding additional conflict and raising the emotional stakes of the decisions they’re about to make and the (negative) consequences they could have for their relationship. That’s a whole lot of subtext to put on a sex scene, but that’s my rationale.

Back when I was starting to write my novel, I was told that sex and crime fiction didn’t mix, but that doesn’t seem quite right to me. I can think of memorable sex scenes in the crime thriller genre like Lee Child’s The Affair – Jack Reacher has sex as a train thunders along the tracks – and that chilling sex scene in Gone Girl between Amy and Desi – the book, and the slightly more bloody film version. But, now I think about it, I can’t think of many detective stories that have sex scenes playing out in full in them unless the sex itself is the crime to be solved. Surely there must be more and my memory is just playing tricks on me? I’m happy about sex on the page, but what about other crime writers, what do they think? I asked a few to find out.

SJI (Susi) Holliday, whose crime fiction includes Black Wood, Willow Walk and The Damselfly says“I really don’t see why sex and crime shouldn’t mix well. When you ask people about this, you get very mixed responses. Readers (in general) are absolutely fine with serial killers, blood, gore, death and destruction. But throw a blow job in there and they’re skimming the pages faster than a quickie in the stationery cupboard. 

“Personally, I love a bit of sex. Slotted in at the right time, it can help add to the tension of your story, especially if the characters are having sex with people they shouldn’t. In all three of my books, there is a hint of sex – an encounter reminiscent of 9½ Weeks on a kitchen table in Black Wood, where various food items are strewn around the kitchen. In Willow Walk, there’s a first-timer’s sex scene down by the river which I thought was quite touching (so to speak) and entirely relevant to the plot. There’s actually less sex in The Damelsfly than in the other two, just a thwarted BJ and an illicit scene in a lock-up that’s kept mainly off the page. It totally depends on the story. It definitely shouldn’t be shoehorned in if it doesn’t advance the plot.

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I don’t think there are many female writers out there who didn’t read some of their mum’s books with the naughty bits in, as teens – you know, stuff like Jilly Cooper and Jackie Collins – girls, I think, are more inclined to explore these images of desire, and thus as adults are possibly more inclined to write about them? Mark Edwards aside (who makes a good job of it, so to speak), I think females might have the upper hand when it comes to making sex scenes sexy rather than cringworthy.

Just as in the art of seduction itself, writing a good sex scene involves giving it just the right amount, and no more. The words used are important, and you need to make sure it’s just the right length (ahem!) – any more and you’re venturing into erotica territory, and that’s not what we’re talking about here. As author Mel Sherratt – Watching over You (Thomas & Mercer) – says, go for the “hot and horny, but quick scenes”. This is spot on. Don’t get too graphic, but don’t be too scared to give us a decent flavour. My top tip for writing a sex scene – if it turns you on when you are writing it and reading it back, it will most likely have the same effect on the reader.

Neil White – From the Shadows (Bonnier Zaffre) – says: “[I've] never written a sex scene. Too buttoned up. My mum will read it.” And Mason Cross – The Time To Kill (Orion) – says: “I’ve only included PG13 sex scenes so far, although I may need to change that for plot reasons in the new one. But Jeez, my dad reads these!” So it could be the fear of family members reading intimate scenes is in the forefront of some writers’s minds (and limits them going all the way) but that’s not all. 

Chris Ewan – Long Time Lost (Faber) – says: “I almost wrote one yesterday and then... just cut away again. Performance anxiety.”

It also depends on the character. James Oswald – Written In Bones (Penguin) – says: “I don’t put much sex in my books. Tony McLean is incredibly repressed anyway, so there’s that too. On the other hand there’s auto-erotic asphyxiation and death by priapism in my latest, so maybe I do write sex after all.’

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Andy Martin – Reacher Said Nothing (Transworld) – says: “Sad to say there are few explicit sex scenes of note in Reacher Said Nothing. I only looked over Lee Child’s shoulder while he was writing Make Me. I think there is the occasional manly handshake. But Lee – as straight as a die – had some wry remarks to make on the subject. ‘Never sleep with someone you know,’ still resonates in my mind. And more recently he said that the most erotic experience he had ever had was a brief encounter on a train. They shared a moment but had no actual language in common. I think I may have been influenced by Childean minimalism, that ‘zero degree’ of writing recommended by Roland Barthes. I was at a Norman Mailer writers colony in Wyoming recently when a brilliant Indian writer devised an elaborate sex scene about a dozen pages long. I wrote one, rather shorter, that went like this: ‘We had sex.’ It’s not exactly lyrical or spiritual but it gets the job done.”

It seems, from the guys I spoke to, that male crime thriller writers generally prefer not to write on-the-page sex and to cut away before the act takes place. Mark Edwards – The Devil’s Work (Thomas & Mercer) – bucks this trend, he wants more sex in crime fiction. “We Brits are notoriously squeamish when it comes to the squelchy bits,” he says. “Wouldn’t it be nice if more of our great detectives were as skillful in bed as they are at solving crimes? Don’t you think there should be more people handcuffed to beds in thrillers because they like being handcuffed to beds?”

Many of the female crime thriller writers I spoke to agreed with Mark and enjoy putting sex into their books. Angela Clarke has a sex scene in a disabled toilet in her thriller Follow Me (Avon), and Elizabeth Haynes has her detective almost die in a queening box in Under a Silent Moon.

Alexandra Sokoloff – Bitter Moon (Thomas & Mercer) – says: “Most of my books have the common theme of an equal male and female protagonist (or in my Huntress series, an equal and combative male protagonist and female villain) joining forces to solve some horrific crime. And erotic tension is just part of the mix, and when those two people finally come together (yes, I meant that) it has to be explosive and character revealing.’ 

Marnie Riches writes a lot of sex scenes in her The Girl Who… series (Maze), she said of women writing sex scenes: “Maybe we have the vocabulary for desire more naturally and are less embarrassed.”

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While I was writing this the only area of disagreement Susi and I had was over “panties”. I have the word panties in Deep Down Dead at least once – during flashback to when my lead character was working as a stripper. It works for the scene and it works in the American voice, but I know the panties set Susi’s teeth on edge!

Even if you decide you’re going to include it, writing good sex is a tricky business. Too little information and its just confusing, too much and it reads like a sex manual – neither are much fun, and neither are sexy – so how to get the perfect balance? If the nominees in the annual Bad Sex Award are anything to go by, the more metaphors and similes used when describing sex increase your risk tenfold. 

Another thing I’d say is that although books (and films) like Bond have always included a lot of sex scenes, and they’re always told from the male point of view. Personally I always give a little cheer when I’m reading a book and the female character takes the POV for a sex scene. Maybe that’s one of the subconscious reasons I wanted to write a sex scene from Lori Anderson’s point of view. Maybe I just like to see girls on top!

So, we’ve had our say, what do you think – do you like a sprinkling of sex with your crime? And, if you do, what’s the most memorable sex scene in a crime thriller for you? Tweet us at @crimethrillgirl.com and @sjiholliday.com using #GirlsOnTop to let us know.

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