By PJ Parrish
Today I want to talk about sex. The dirty deed. The two-backed beast. The Nasty. Le Freak. Riding the Pony. Rock ‘n’ Rolling. Aardvarking. Boinking. Shagging. Doing the No-Pants Dance.
And I want to ask just one question: Why are crime writers such wusses when it comes to sex?
I had to lay aside a nice post I had started for today about settings, and now I have to talk about sex because of the current book I am reading. It’s by a well-known thriller writer and I was having a good time with it until last night. That’s when he got to the sex scene. It was awful. No, worse than awful. I laughed. And now I am having trouble getting back in the mood. So forgive my testiness today.
What the heck happens to some writers when they have to write about sex?
l tell you what I think happens. They get as self-conscious as pimply prom dates. Crime writers can meet murder head on and not flinch, can even render death poetic. But faced with having to describe copulation — especially in the context of — gasp! relationships — they can turn out the most dreadful, unbelievable, embarrassing treacle.
Let’s crack open a page here:
“But the hand was what she tried to concentrate on, the hand, since it has the entire terrain of her torso to explore and not just the otorhinolaryngological caverns — oh God, it was not just at the border where the flesh of the breast joins the pectoral sheath of the chest — no, the hand was cupping her entire right — Now!”
That wasn’t from the book I was reading last night. That writer shall remain nameless. I might have to face him someday in the Bouchercon bar. That passage above was written by Tom Wolfe in I am Charlotte Simmons.
Otorhinolaryngological caverns? Did this guy EVER get laid?
At the risk of being offensive here, I will suggest that it is usually the guys who fall apart when sex rears its ugly head in their books. Not that women crime writers haven’t turned out some leaden bedroom prose. But I’m thinking it might have something to do with the “guy relationship” thing. Male crime writers tend to get squeamish when they have to write about the emotional stuff. So when the impulses of the heart (or even just loins) propel the hero(ine) into bed, things get icky fast. And guys, especially thriller writer guys, tend to chomp onto the cliches like a rabid Jack Russell. Like: Why is the woman always hot to trot with no warmup? (This was the basic problem with the book I was reading last night).
Believe me, I sympathize with any of you who have problems writing sex scenes. Before I turned to writing mysteries, I used to write what in the Eighties was euphemistically called Women’s Contemporary Fiction. (Big fat sagas about internecine family intrigue with sex scenes). I became pretty good at sex, if I do say so myself. So I know how hard it is to write about it without looking silly. For starters, you have get your folks out of their clothes. And then you have to get the plumbing connections right. And then — and here’s where most writers lose it — you might have to write dialogue that doesn’t sound like two four-year-olds making mud pies.
Okay, I have a confession to make. For six books into our series, we had managed to avoid our hero Louis Kincaid having sex, probably on purpose. Once, I even got a fan letter from a lady in Maine asking me why Louis never had sex. But in A Killing Rain, he fell in love with a woman, Joe Frye, and it was finally time for Louis to get some. My co-author sister Kelly and I knew the scene was coming, and we decided it had to be on camera. No wussy fade to black this time. So there we were, sitting in my office with our Ferrante and Teicher computers. I had drawn duty to write the sex scene, but man, I just couldn’t do it. It just seemed so darn…yucky, given our hardboiled style. But there was Louis and his woman and it was my duty to light their fire. And I froze.
Kelly, hearing no typing, turned and asked, “Okay, what is it now?”
“I can’t do this. I got them out on the dark porch. You take it.”
So we switched chairs and Kelly gave it a go. After a moment, I realized I hadn’t heard any typing. “What’s the matter?” I asked.
“I got their clothes half off. You take it.”
I rolled back and gave it another shot. Nada. Dry as dust. I had lost that lovin’ feeling.
Finally, we sat side by side and sweated it out. It was brutal. But eventually, Louis got laid without us resorting to a From Here To Eternity beach cop-out.
Now, lest I be accused of guy-bashing, I’ll allow some men to weigh in here. Here’s C.J. Box, at the Montana Festival of the Book, talking about how he does it: “My protagonist is married, so there are no sex scenes.”
Here’s Neil McMahon, in an interview talking about his first book, Twice Dying, where his man and woman ended up in a motel room. He tried to slide by with a few sentences. But his editor demanded a full-blown sex scene, saying, “All right. This is it. You’re going to have to write this. It’s going to have to be explicit. This is a deal-breaker.” So I wrote it, McMahon said.
For a more thoughtful take, let’s go to my good friend Jim Fusilli, talking about his book Tribeca Blues: “Sex is a theme in Tribeca Blues — covert sex, back-alley sex, the ramifications of that kind of thing. So there had to be a sex scene between two people who have genuine affection for each other. In the context of the story, I think it works. It’s sensual but not salacious. It wasn’t easy to write. I felt a little squeamish. I don’t know. I’m not a prude, but maybe I had too many years of Catholic school or something. You know, if you’re going to write it, you have to write it well. You’ve got to feel it and make it real. You can’t be saying “wee-wee” and “boobies” any more than you can say “throbbing member” or “heaving love mounds” or some bullshit like that. It’s got to be as believable as when you’ve got him walking down the street.”
At least Jim has the guts to meet the subject head on.
Not all guy crime writers shy away from sex. Some embrace it. Max Allan Collins and Jeff Gelb have produced some sophisticated erotic mysteries. But those are the small exceptions.
In closing, I’ll give the last word to a woman –veteran mystery novelist and Edgar winner Dana Stabenow: “There are a ton of people, critics and writers alike, who say that in detective fiction it should be the classic Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe character who have to be loners. That’s changed a lot with the advent of women writing in the mystery field, because women tend to emphasize relationships. For about 5,000 years that was pretty much all we had, our lives revolved around relationships and our husbands and our families and our children. So there are a lot of women reading mystery fiction and I think publishers are going to publish what they can sell — and if they can sell mysteries that have an element of relationship in them, then that’s what they’re going to solicit writers to produce.”
And damn it, that includes sex.
I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe we need convention panels or workshops to teach this stuff. All I know is I am glad I don’t write romantic novels anymore. Frankly, sex just wears me out. Writing it, that is. I’m too old now. And you know, I am much happier killing people than having sex. But maybe that is a female thing.