Sex and Violence, Please

The announcement of Little Brown’s new suspense line, Mullholland, is a cause for rejoicing in mystery-writer circles…and not just because an attractive new market for the craft has revealed itself.  The launch reaffirms the notion that neither the book nor the mystery is dead, and that’s always good news to a writer trying to keep the customers entertained and the bills paid.

The larger argument over the life and death of the book – especially that sub-category known as the novel – will have to wait.  I can only say that while I am unlikely to purchase an e-book reader, having grown up loving the physical object that is a book, I have no prejudice against whatever delivery system is devised to get my content out there.  My son Nathan – now translating books and video games from Japanese into English – grew up on computers, even as he was surrounded by books, and he loves both the old-fashioned physical object but is, of course, comfortable with an electronic delivery system.  He grew up with computers the way I grew up with comic books (another reviled delivery system for storytelling, before the term “graphic novel” came along).

The specific concern of the mystery writer, however, is that the genre itself – and all its subdivisions – will survive in an age where the 24-hour news cycle comes up with more sex, violence and absurdity than we could ever hope to fathom, but much less fashion.  No self-respecting editor would allow a writer to invent an embezzler named Madoff, or a self-destructing movie queen called Lohan.  Reality has outstripped us, and in our weak moments, we feel threatened by “reality” TV (quotes needed).  That I hear my Hollywood agent casually using the phrase “scripted content” as the exception to the rule of current TV series, I get understandably nervous.

But the mystery story – the thriller – isn’t going anywhere.  The human craves storytelling, and liars like me will always have a place at the campfire.  Seems likely that a lazy but creative lout like yours truly created the fictional story by staying home from the mastodon hunt, cowering somewhere, only to come up with a whopper (lie, not burger) to earn himself a prehistoric steak come dinnertime.  That story probably was at least as scary as what the hunters came up against, possibly containing twists and turns to explain why the lout wasn’t able to make the trip with the other guys who went out on the hunt.

Puzzle My IIf a novel is an elaborate lie – and it is – why is it that makes the mystery story one of the most popular types of tale?  Wanting to know the solution to puzzle, and enjoying a safe, vicarious thrill are obvious components here.  That’s why suspense and mystery remain elements in the other popular genres – horror, science fiction, western, you name it.  They all draw from the well dug by guys like Doyle and dolls like Christie.

And of course mystery fiction is littered with sub-genres, the two major categories being traditional (cozy) and hardboiled (noir).  Another way to view the mystery genre is break it into amateur (Miss Marple) and professional (Phillip Marlowe); but call the former cozy and the latter hardboiled at your own risk – Hercule Poirot is a professional, remember, and Travis McGee an amateur.   Suspense fiction is itself huge sub-category, encompassing espionage, political thriller, the North By Northweststyle accidental hero, and much more.  The police procedural can accommodate just about every sub-category.

As I kid, I got interested in mystery and suspense fiction by way of Sherlock Holmes, Dick Tracy and the Hardy Boys.  I graduated to Ellery Queen and the Saint, when suddenly my TV – back when we only had three channels to choose from – came alive (and often dead) with tough private eyes: Mike Hammer, Peter Gunn, Nick and Nora Charles, Stu Baily of 77 Sunset Strip, Phillip Marlowe, Honey West, and Perry Mason (plus his P.I. pal Paul Drake).  Around this time, I happened onto The Maltese Falcon on late night TV, and have never looked back.  As was my habit, I immediately went searching for the literary sources of these TV thrills.

I had read all of Hammett, Chandler and Spillane by the eighth grade, the novels anyway (the short stories took some digging).  Lots of Erle Stanley Gardner, too, and private eye writers like Richard S. Prather and Jonathan Latimer, graduating in high school to the lustful likes of non-P.I. writers James M. Cain and Jim Thompson.  I couldn’t get enough of what I learned was called “hardboiled” (the term noir hadn’t penetrated yet) and became obsessed with Mickey Spillane, whose rugged avenger Mike Hammer had roots in the comic books that remain one of my favorite storytelling delivery systems.

I’ve become identified with Spillane, initially because I was often his defender, lately because I have been bringing some of his unfinished works to completion.  I was as taken with Hammett, Chandler, and Cain as with Mickey, but the first three were usually treated with respect by critics, and Spillane was often trashed…usually unfairly.  Even today he is often dismissed, though he was the bestselling American author of the 20th Century and his character Mike Hammer opened the door for every tough hero (and heroine) that came after, from James Bond to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

The Spillane aura that has followed me inspires a very obvious question – one that I was often asked at the beginning of my career, from my first Walden’s Bookstore signing in 1973 right up to an appearance I made at an Iowa City Book Festival a few days ago.  Why sex and violence? The implication, of course, is that I am a sick soul in need of counseling and worthy of contempt.

Reflecting on the question over the years, I have sometimes decided that puberty had a lot to do with it.  Thirteen years old is the perfect time for an impressionable kid to read about sex and violence.  I was the typical teen of the time – getting no sex from the blossoming beauties around me, and being bullied by the thugs who had flunked two or three times and felt I was as good a person to blame as any.  Guys like Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe and Mike Hammer got plenty of action where beauties were concerned, and they cut bullies down like so many weeds.

So am I just caught up in a loop of impressionable adolescence?  Should I have moved on from sex and violence, to larger, more pressing, more adult concerns?

But every mystery novel – not just Hammett, Chandler and Spillane, but Christie, Sayers and Grafton – deals with sex and violence.  Christie may stage her axe murder off-camera, but the murder is no less gruesome.  Rex Stout may keep Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe off-stage when females are being strangled with phone cords and drowned in bathtubs, but those usually sympathetic characters are no less dead.  (The notion that Stout is in any way “cozy” always makes me shake my head.  Actually, ditto for Christie – she and Poirot and Marple have a general contempt for the sinner that is man, and their toughness rivals any hardboiled dick.)

The motives for murder may seem unlimited, but really boil down to sex, violence and greed.  Greed fuels many a thriller, but sex and violence seem a constant.  Mystery and suspense novels may deal with sex and violence in ways that disturb the reader, possibly in a manner that some readers find offensive, while other writers may be more discreet about the presentation of the grisly, and imply more about sex than they directly demonstrate.  That’s to be expected – every writer approaches the material in a personal way.  Dictates of taste move both reader and writer.

But those basic elements – sex and violence – remain present in the fabric of all of these tales.

I would contend that – whether handled in the gorefest manner of certain authors or the clinical forensics manner of others, or even the off-stage, hands-off, genteel depiction common to many cozies – sex and violence are what bring in the readers.  The humorous cozy mysteries I write with my wife Barbara (as “Barbara Allan”) are not at all gory and only mildly sexy, but the murders our amateur sleuths solve are rooted nonetheless in sex and violence.  No question.

And sex and violence are what bring the readers back.  The compelling lustful love story that is The Postman Always Rings Twice can make us care about two characters who might be fairly termed as lowlifes.  The Mirror Crack’d can find us identifying with a mother who lost a child tragically and struck out homicidally, and have us nodding with a detective who condones such a murder.  The Maltese Falcon can make us agree with the decision of the detective who “sends over” the woman he loves even as we are chilled by the bleak future facing him.  The film North By Northwest has us rooting for an advertising man of no particular depth of character largely because – as he ducks violent death – he falls in love with a mysterious blonde on a train (a train prone to entering tunnels).  Hitchcock knew – sex and violence were his toolkit.

And he was right to choose that toolkit.  To any writer or reader who is confronted by the condescending attitude that says, “Sex and violence?  What’s wrong with you?”

The answer is: nothing.  Sex is life, and violence is death, and those are the two big topics…the topics we all care about, as writers, readers.  As human beings.

Max Allan Collins has earned an unprecedented sixteen Private Eye Writers of America “Shamus” nominations, winning for True Detective (1983) and Stolen Away (1993) in his Nathan Heller series, which includes the forthcoming Bye Bye, Baby. His graphic novel Road to Perdition is the basis of the Academy Award-winning film. A filmmaker in the midwest, he has had half a dozen feature screenplays produced, including The Last Lullaby (2008), based on his innovative Quarry series.