I blame the movies.
Or, at any rate, bad movies.
Well, I suppose Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction were only half bad and could conceivably fall under the “guilty pleasures” category. But it’s the torrent of uninspired imitations that gave the genre a bad name: remember Shannon Tweed and a cohort of surgically augmented Hollywood and Playboy rejects, starlets that bared all and more against a vague plot involving guns and sex and gratuitous nudity that put the nail firmly in the coffin. And then Madonna got on the bandwagon with Body of Evidence, and a nadir of sorts was reached. Oh, Sharon Stone’s depilated mons veneris, you are to blame for so much derivative product!
Sadly, those B-movies and legions of straight-to-video (as it was then in pre-DVD days…) exploitationers have tarred the erotic thriller name badly.
To this day, whenever a character stumbles into a strip joint in a crime movie, we shudder at the prospect of yet another panorama of siliconed gals squirming around poles in the background with the camera panning across their shiny attributes as the protagonists go about their conversational business in the interest of advancing the plot. What plot? This is just tits and ass.
And how this has made life damn difficult for some of us in the crime writing wars!
It shouldn’t be so.
After all, what are the principal motivations for crime from days immemorial?
Money. Revenge. Religion. Power. Social pressures.
All of the above.
But what is the major factor that sets people, characters, on the path to transgression?
And in real life, sex is not just hydraulics, it is also a manifestation of love, emotions, relationships. The engine that makes us all function.
When I look at the crime and mystery field today, that is exactly what I personally find lacking all too often. And the often deliberate neglect of sex in much of contemporary crime writing detracts as a result from the character building. Too many of our heroes or villains seem to be living in a two-dimensional world where a major ingredient is missing, and that makes me question their reality and turns too many books into exercises in style, in genre, however brilliantly plotted and page-turning they are. Now I’m not advocating that every few chapters or so Harry Bosch, Keller, Charlie Parker, or Inspector Rebus should make a pit stop to indulge in sexual activity, but it would make them so much more real, wouldn’t it, if we were sometimes reminded they have genitals? In order to achieve a compelling reality, writers must reflect the world we live in, surely?
Here lies the problem though: our readers would rather not be reminded that sex exists. Maybe because in real life it is too messy, disturbing, and when they read mystery books they would rather escape from everyday preoccupations. And I do sympathize with them, I really do.
Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, and Golden Age sleuths had no sexual life, so why should our modern heroes indulge? Sex and its influence remain major motivational factors in a lot of mystery books since Chandler and the pulps, but it has become more of a plot device and is seldom genuinely explored, unless it is there to titillate gratuitously in the majority of what I’d term forensic and serial killer thrillers, where the detailed descriptions of rape, eviscerations, and autopsies go one step too far in my opinion, even as an excuse for jolting the reader back into the realm of reality’s everyday horror. In these books, almost anything goes, but writers (and editors?) fight shy of accurately describing sexual relations.
Has it always been this way?
Take James M. Cain, where sex is at the root of most of his novels about flawed characters floundering in a sea of jealousy and uncontrollable passion. And these books were actually written years ago, when conventions were so much more conservative.
Think of Jim Thompson, David Goodis, and many other dark masters of the art of noir, where sex, however disturbing its manifestations and representations, is the very engine that drives the plot, and not just a zest of titillation added to the story to spice it up. All are crime writers who have strongly survived the fads and cycles of mystery tastes.
There have been isolated (and all too commercially unsuccessful) attempts to put sex back into the mainstream of crime writing, including minor masterpieces like Kent Harrington’s Dark Ride, Martyn Bedford’s The Houdini Girl, Homme Fatale and Violent Silence, the two stellar thrillers by British screenwriter Paul Mayersberg (who wrote The Man Who Fell to Earth, Croupier, Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, and Eureka, among others), the steamy Florida noir landscapes of passion evoked by the novels of Vicki Hendricks and Laura Reese’s Topping from Below, which was mistakenly marketed as erotica. Some writers occasionally patrol the shady borderline and hint at what could be achieved if self and editorial censorship did not intervene: think of Mo Hayder’s Tokyo, the murky webs of relationships in Patricia Highsmith’s writing, even the untold transgressions that pepper many of Simenon’s non-Maigret novels, where sex permeates the lines and hangs heavy behind every character’s path.
Truly, I get the feeling that a great majority of today’s crime writers gingerly circle the possibility of being more explicit and honest about their character’s sexuality, and offer frequent hints that they would like to do more in this area, but somehow they always hold back.
I wish they wouldn’t.
Now, you will point out that I would say all these things, wouldn’t I, considering the nature of many of my books? Am I not, after all, the notorious author who straddles erotica and crime, and whose publishers proudly advertise the fact that The Times and Time Out London have called me “the King of the Erotic Thriller” on every successive book cover (should I ever write a children’s book, I guess they’d even be tempted to also include that moniker somewhere in the blurb…)?
But it’s lonely being the King. And I would rather be a small fish in a big pond than a big fish in a small pond.
So why don’t you dip your toes in the water? You know it makes sense.
Maxim Jakubowski is a British writer and editor, once responsible for the Black Box Thrillers and Blue Murder imprints, and owner of London’s Murder One bookstore. He now edits the MaxCrime list for John Blake Publishing and the annual Mammoth Book of Best British Crime Stories, already in its ninth year. His latest books are FOLLOWING THE DETECTIVES, a travel guide to fictional mystery locations, and a new novel, I WAS WAITING FOR YOU; both appear this fall. He lives in London.