Private dick, public passion

Crime fiction needs a spurt of sex, claims Virgin Publishing, and Pan Pantziarka may be just the man to fill the yearning gap. But then, asks Robert Hanks, shouldn't the unmasking of the criminal be climax enough?
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It's hard to think of a better way of introducing the subject than the one on the press release from Virgin Publishing. "Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?" it demands, and follows it up with the coy supplementary: "Wouldn't it be nice if just sometimes it wasn't a gun?"

And on the assumption that at least some people's answer would be "yes, wouldn't it just", Virgin has created "Crime & Passion", an imprint dedicated to the proposition that, as the blurb on the back of the books puts it, "There's something sexy about detectives - and it's time crime novels admitted it."

The first two titles are published tomorrow: A Moment of Madness introduces (the idea being that we're going to see a lot more of them) Fairfax and Vallance. She is a smart, sexy television reporter, he a scruffy but somehow strangely attractive police inspector and, "although they take an instant dislike to each other, when they're competing to investigate a double murder they can't stop thinking about each other". Deadly Affairs brings on Detective Chief Inspector John Anderson ("His investigative methods are forensic and rigorously logical"). A third series will feature a private investigator called Victoria Donovan.

Each book is structured around a traditional British murder investigation (isolated group of suspects, middle-class milieu). Within this structure you get two or three major sex scenes - the comprehensive guidelines handed out to authors don't lay down a limit, but Pan Pantziarka, who created all the characters and is overall editor of the series, reckons that, if you go beyond that, it stops being a detective story and becomes erotica with a detective theme. The guidelines do specify that the novels should be enjoyed by women as well as men ("So no thrusting hard cocks spurting all over the place," says Pantziarka, whose own command of the language of sensual fulfilment recently won him the title of Erotic Writer of the Year at the Erotic Oscars), and that there should be no extremes of violence or sadomasochism, no serial killers or rapists.

A few minutes' conversation with Pantziarka makes it clear that he takes his craft very seriously, approaching it with what you might call a missionary zeal, if the word "missionary" didn't have awkward connotations in this context. His own taste in crime fiction runs towards what he calls the "dark psycho-sexual" end of the spectrum (asked to name a crime-writer he admires he comes up with James Ellroy, whose books are notable for the way they entwine sex with obsession, compulsion and self-loathing); but you get the impression that he is genuinely worried by the absence of more positive representations of sexuality in crime fiction.

"A lot of British crime fiction is very sexual," he says, "but it's all very repressed, it's all at the Mills and Boon stage." In those books that tackle the subject head on, "sex is a mark of the criminal, and if you're into anything other than missionary-position sex, you're going to get your comeuppance in the end." As far as Crime & Passion is concerned, "We want to have a more pro-sex line in the books."

In case you're interested, the books themselves are tosh: thin characterisation, plots reliant on improbable bluff and massive coincidence, apparently arbitrary sexual encounters, and body parts compared to the insides of shells more often than most of us could do with. Still, we are in the corner of the bookshop where the covers don't bother with author's names. On the credit side, it should be noted that the plots do make sense. However hard the authors may have been shoehorned into it, there's a streak of sturdy scepticism running through the stories (A Moment of Madness, which Pan Pantziarka wrote himself, manages some lively digs at management guru fads), and any regular reader of whodunits will have come across tosh a lot less literate than this. In fact, if it's crime fiction with smutty bits you want, you could do a lot worse.

But is that what any of us wants? Is there really a gap in the market yearning to be filled, in much the same way that Catherine Marshall yearns for DCI Anderson on pages 110-111 of Deadly Affairs? It's probably true that there isn't a lot of straightforward sex in crime novels; but to say that it's missing is not the same as saying that anybody misses it. In much traditional crime fiction, sex is not merely absent but actively excluded. If you make a list of famous fictional detectives, think how many of them are perpetually unmarried, divorced or widowed: Holmes, Poirot, Father Brown (naturally), Miss Marple, Philip Marlowe; more recently we've had the incompetent wooing of Morse, the divorced and unlivable-with Dalziel, and PD James's Adam Dalgleish, a tragic widower for going on 30 years.

Television and film have offered detectives as more overtly sexual beings, as the Virgin press release points out. But even on screen, the sex is often kept under wraps (think of the glances Bogart and Bacall exchange in The Big Sleep). And there often seems to be a trade-off between sexual success and professional effectiveness: in Between the Lines, one of the TV series cited by Virgin as an inspiration for the Crime & Passion series, the sexual achievement of the Neil Pearson character goes hand in hand with his embrace of compromise and eventual failure. Compare Morse, whose ineptness as an interpreter of women's feelings contrasts with his brilliance as an interpreter of clues. Impotence of one sort or another seems to be integral to the form.

There are a number of possible explanations for why sex and detection don't go together. One is that we like our detectives to be pure to an almost monastic degree - not necessarily morally pure but, like Holmes, purely dedicated to his profession, not so much unsullied as undistracted. Alternatively, an old-fashioned Freudian interpretation might be that the whodunit is a form of sexual sublimation, in which the unmasking of the criminal is a surrogate orgasm - in which case, adding actual nookie is like sprinkling sugar on your Frosties. The unmasking can only be an anti-climax. If there is some truth in this account, Pan Pantziarka is on a hiding to nothing.

Then again, we live in times when gratification is taken straight, hardly ever sublimated or even deferred (isn't it significant that where once Cadbury's Creme Eggs would vanish from the shops directly after Easter, now you can buy them all the year round?). In such times, perhaps the surrogate orgasm seems unnecessarily finicky, the neuter detective an impediment to undiluted fulfilment. Maybe Crime & Passion is the wave of the future. Out go the magnifying glass and the insufflator; in come the mirror over the bed and the vibrator. Somehow, it doesn't sound so much fun.