Lust, Football and Fiction

by James Scott Bell

Remember when sports used to be about winning a trophy? Not a participation trophy, which didn’t exist until about thirty years ago. A trophy was supposed to be something you earned.

An athlete wins a letter by meeting a playing-time requirement. I remember winning my letter at ol’ Taft High. How proud I was. I could now rightly don the vaunted letterman’s jacket with leather sleeves and all. A big T was stitched on the jacket, to which I could add pins for certain accomplishments. When I was elected captain, I got to stitch a star to the triceps part of the sleeve.

Back then, jackets and letters and trophies were rewards on the merits. They were an incentive to strive, work hard, do your best.

How times have changed.

We just concluded the NFL draft in—fittingly—Las Vegas. Fitting because a Nevada sex worker offered the #1 pick another kind of “award”—a professional tumble, for free.

How inspirational! Another incentive for all you kids out there to work hard at your sport!

Pardon me as I try to hold down my breakfast.

Ah, but I am most happy to report that this year’s #1 pick, Travon Walker (DE, Georgia) sounds like a class act who will not be taking up the offer. In his video interview he paid homage to his Marine father for discipline and his schoolteacher mother for his grades. And thanked God for them both.

Go forth, young man, and be a star!

Now let’s talk about lust.

Lust—held the poets and philosophers, seers and sages—is the strongest and deadliest of the passions. It gets first place in the Bhagavad-Gita: “Lust, anger and greed, these three are the soul-destroying gates of hell.”

Or as Chaucer put it in Canterbury Tales:

Foul lust of lechery, behold thy due.
Not only dost thou darken man’s mind,
But bringest destruction on his body too…

Which is why lust is such a powerful fire in fiction. It is the force behind every femme fatale in noir, and almost exclusively the downfall of the male. Think of slick insurance man Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in Double Indemnity, or lawyer Ned Racine (William Hurt) in Body Heat. Think of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, caught in the alluring web of the devious Brigid O’Shaughnessy even as he knows he must deliver her to the cops.

Lust in fiction is not the sole purview of the male, of course, as certain romance covers aver. Those six-pack abs and low-rider jeans do not betoken Sunnybrook Farm. And though I’ve never read it, isn’t lust the entire driving force of Fifty Shades of Grey? (I prefer the Amish version, Fifty Shades of Hay.)

Thus, lust is a potent source of inner conflict, and inner conflict bonds reader to character.

At the end of The Maltese Falcon, Spade has to fight his passion for Brigid, the murderess of his partner, and his inner conflict is evident in what he tells her:

“I won’t play the sap for you.”

“Don’t say that, please.” She took his hand from her shoulder and held it to her face. “Why must you do this to me, Sam? Surely Mr. Archer wasn’t as much to you as—”

“Miles,” Spade said hoarsely, “was a son of a bitch. I found that out the first week we were in business together and I meant to kick him out as soon as the year was up. You didn’t do me a damned bit of harm by killing him.”

“Then what?”

Spade pulled his hand out of hers. He no longer either smiled or grimaced. His wet yellow face was set hard and deeply lined. His eyes burned madly. He said: “Listen. This isn’t a damned bit of good. You’ll never understand me, but I’ll try once more and then we’ll give it up. Listen. When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around—bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere.”

“You’re not serious,” she said. “You don’t expect me to think that these things you’re saying are sufficient reason for sending me to the—”

“Wait till I’m through and then you can talk. Fourth, no matter what I wanted to do now it would be absolutely impossible for me to let you go without having myself dragged to the gallows with the others. Next, I’ve no reason in God’s world to think I can trust you and if I did this and got away with it you’d have something on me that you could use whenever you happened to want to. That’s five of them. The sixth would be that, since I’ve also got something on you, I couldn’t be sure you wouldn’t decide to shoot a hole in me some day. Seventh, I don’t even like the idea of thinking that there might be one chance in a hundred that you’d played me for a sucker. And eighth—but that’s enough. All those on one side. Maybe some of them are unimportant. I won’t argue about that. But look at the number of them. Now on the other side we’ve got what? All we’ve got is the fact that maybe you love me and maybe I love you.”

“You know,” she whispered, “whether you do or not.”

“I don’t. It’s easy enough to be nuts about you.” He looked hungrily from her hair to her feet and up to her eyes again. “But I don’t know what that amounts to. Does anybody ever? But suppose I do? What of it? Maybe next month I won’t. I’ve been through it before—when it lasted that long. Then what? Then I’ll think I played the sap. And if I did it and got sent over then I’d be sure I was the sap. Well, if I send you over I’ll be sorry as hell–I’ll have some rotten nights—but that’ll pass. Listen.” He took her by the shoulders and bent her back, leaning over her. “If that doesn’t mean anything to you forget it and we’ll make it this: I won’t because all of me wants to–wants to say to hell with the consequences and do it—and because—God damn you—you’ve counted on that with me the same as you counted on that with the others.” He took his hands from her shoulders and let them fall to his sides.

Spade set the edges of his teeth together and said through them: “I won’t play the sap for you.”

She put her mouth to his, slowly, her arms around him, and came into his arms. She was in his arms when the door-bell rang.

That’s why The Maltese Falcon is a classic and not another run-of-the-mill detective story. It’s not just about greed and murder. It’s about a man’s soul torn between two savage passions—lust and duty.

Is any of that going on in any of your characters?

37 thoughts on “Lust, Football and Fiction

  1. Thanks for this, Jim, particularly with the shout-out to Ned Racine. I think I’ll watch Body Heat today.

    None of what you mentioned is going on in my fiction presently. Some of it has, however, nudged a nose or two under the tent of my life. Even now.

    Hope you’re having a great weekend. Thanks again.

  2. The “Company Rule” in my Blackthorne, Inc. romantic suspense novels is “Don’t get involved with the principal.” Of course, since these are shelved as romances over mystery, that’s an underlying theme in most of the books. And, because these are romances, it’s love, not lust, that’s the motivator. Still allows plenty of room for conflict.
    Enjoy your Sunday.
    PS. You went to Taft? I went to Uni.

  3. Great post, JIm.

    Since my fantasy series is “clean” teen fantasy, I try to keep the raging hormones in check. However (the girls always demand some romance), in my most recent book, United We Stand, Dude, where the Mad River Magic gang visits the dermal world and sees the final outcome of CRT, the MC (Bolt) becomes enamored by PeeBee, a “Pink” being persecuted by the “Oranges.” This threatens the mission, but the force of arguments by the rest of the gang helps Bolt see the light, and the mission is saved.

    I guess, with teen biology, a story wouldn’t be real without some “hormone” conflict.

  4. Another great post, Jim.

    No lust in my mystery A Shush Before Dying, especially since it’s a cozy. There is a hint of romantic tension. My Empowered series had a very slow burn romance as one of the subplots, but love, not lust, was the concern of my hero, Mathilda Brandt.

    Have a great Sunday!

    • Interesting to consider the “rules” here, Dale, e.g., Cozies v. Crime. The former admits romantic tension, the latter sexual tension. But either is good for conflict.

      I like that title.

  5. Penetrating question, Jim. Oops, probably should have put that a different way. 😉

    At the end of book 2 in my series, the main character breaks rule #1–“Don’t sleep with the guy who signs your paycheck.”

    She spends the next five books living with that fateful decision, alternately being glad and kicking herself.

  6. Divorced Catholic here. Lust is the topic at most of my confessions.

    But seriously, folks…

    Gil Brewer, in my opinion, was a master of lust and the femme fatale in his noir novels. His male protagonists always acted on lust, usually sexual at first then shortly followed by lust for money, and it never ended well for these men. It’s funny, Brewer’s books would likely be considered tawdry and sinful to many religious leaders but what better cautionary tales of the fallen world are there?

    I’ve never been able to pull this off as a writer, but I love reading these contemporary Grimm’s Fairy Tales of following lust down the drain.

    All of Brewer’s books are in print thanks to the self-publishing revolution. His classic, The Vengeful Virgin, is available from Hard Case Crime

  7. I used lust in Wings of Mayhem to ratchet up the conflict, a cat burglar being hunted by a serial killer lusts over the lead detective on the case. She can’t come clean about what she knows, of course, without risking arrest. Worked great. 🙂

  8. This is a bit off-topic, but I thought someone might enjoy what I found last week while doing some research.

    I’ve always enjoyed film noir, and hope to put a bit of its feel into my WIP…so last week while I googled the topic, I stumbled upon the top 100 noir films according to Paste (digital magazine) as of Nov 2021. Some of the choices I agree with, others not so much (I’ve never thought MILDRED PIERCE as noir). Each film has a brief review. According to the list, BODY HEAT is #44 and THE MALTESE FALCON is #11. I whole-heartedly agree with their choice for #7: OUT OF THE PAST with Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer as the femme, but then I’ve always been a sucker for Mitchum’s acting–he was totally, totally terrific in the original CAPE FEAR. I was rather surprised with their pick for #1: THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW with Edward G. Robinson (1944). It’s been a while since I’ve seen the film, and I thought it good, but as #1…? Now in my down-time I’m checking out where I can stream the films–you know, so I can complete my research.

    • Holy Dan Duryea! There is no way The Woman in the Window is #1. Terrible, unforgivable ending. It should be booted from the list altogether, but I always give points to a noir with Duryea. My top 10:

      Double Indemnity
      Out of the Past
      The Maltese Falcon
      Touch of Evil
      Sunset Boulevard
      Crime Wave
      Gun Crazy
      99 River Street
      The Hitch-Hiker

      The one reason Out of the Past isn’t #1 is that I’ve always thought it had one flaw: Rhonda Fleming should have been in the Jane Greer role, and vice versa.

      • I’m very interested in watching The Hitch-Hiker. It must have some killer intensity for being only 1 hr. 11 mins. (on Prime).

        The reviewer said (to paraphrase) Ms. Lupino directed a slim, unsparing, suspenseful slice of true crime. She puts her foot on the gas and doesn’t let up until the very end…unlike so many directors today who think cramming as much into a film as possible automatically makes it superior. That last part is me talking.

          • I also want to see Gun Crazy (#58). The review calls it an embarrassment of naughty delights and so taut it’s fit to snap. It’s also another shorty — only 1 hr. 27 mins.

            I really love the old films. They said what they wanted to say, then The End.

  9. The femme fatale uses lust as a tool, and her weakness is love, not lust.

    Anyone want to know the real reason for all those men’s bare chests only on romance covers? The publisher has about fifty in stock and rotates them. At least they don’t have the heroine in Jordache jeans on a historical romance cover, or the hero having a mysterious third arm the artist failed to remove when the cover was changed for another book.

      • “Bodice Ripper” is THE trigger for romance writers and readers. Don’t ever use it because it signals that you have never read a romance, and you get your information from people who not only have never read a romance but have a great deal of contempt for women who do. At best, it describes historical romances of FORTY years ago.

  10. This was a great post. I might be one of the last of an era to earn my trophies the hard way.

    My kids, for some reason, keep asking me if I broke any bones in my lifetime. Had a lot of fractures playing hockey and football in my youth. There’s a box of trophies and medals in my basement they’re fascinated with. Makes me think – I never needed the trophy – I was always more about working and making money.

    I also liked your perspective on lust. I’m planning on using this more as I write and wanted to say thank you for the perspective. My current setting involves an oil facility in the Middle East and it’s run by an all-male crew.

  11. Lust was the motive for murder in my second novel, “Dead Man’s Watch.” However, it’s a cozy mystery, so all the relevant action takes place off stage. Readers can use their imaginations.

    I also haven’t read “Fifty Shades of Gray,” but I did enjoy the dairy version: “Fifty Shades of Whey.” 🙂

  12. Great topic. The human mind is a curious thing, along with what drives us. Men are in the grip of powerful forces, some originating in the cerebrum, some from the male auxiliary brain, the scrotabellum. The latter is where we do some of our best (and, potentially, worst) thinking, thoughts having to do with women.

    My picaresque MC is a rather earthy fellow, but falls in love over and over with essentially the same woman in various unattainable incarnations. It takes him over 100,000 words to realize who his romantic archetype is, the one he remembers from that horrible night in Bilbao.

  13. What a coincidence. I used The Maltese Falcon as my going-to-sleep movie last night. I especially love the scene you reference, and yes, I have read the book. After reading the comments above I had to look up that Paste ranking of noirs. Yikes. Laura doesn’t even belong on the list, IMO, nor do several of the others. The ending of Gilda just ruins the entire movie. I can’t even watch it. I’m a lot closer to your top ten, but I would have to have The Postman Always Rings Twice, Kiss Me Deadly, and probably CrissCross on it. If I were to add in a foreign film it would be Shoot The Piano Player. IOW I need more than ten places for my top ten noirs.

  14. Jim, great post. A few years ago, I took a film and literature class at college, and we read, then watched The Maltese Falcon. I may have seen the movie before since I like to watch classic films, but I’d never read the novel. What a difference that made when I did watch the movie (again?). Powerful.

    • Robin. The movie version is one of the few that is absolutely true to the book. The dialogue in the novel is so good that writer’director John Huston hardly changed a thing. A story, perhaps apocryphal, has Huston tossing the novel to his secretary and telling her to turn it into script over the weekend. She just transcribed the book… even if true, Huston just used that as a foundation for planning the movie very carefully, shot-for-shot, dialogue-for-dialogue.

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