Tonight 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 major wussies when it comes to sex? What the hell happens to most of them when they have to write about it?
I'll tell you what happens. They turn trite and sentimental. Or they become boring and flaccid. And 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 few pages 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!"
Okay, this is cheating because the above quote was NOT written by a crime writer. I could name names in the crime world here, but I have to bend elbows with my fellow writers at conventions. And according to one drunken broad at Bouchercon, I already have the reputation for being "offensive." So forgive me for chickening out and not quoting directly from some of the books on my shelf. But you people know who you are....
As for the lyrical passage above, it was upchucked onto the page by none other than Tom Wolfe in his latest, "I am Charlotte Simmons."
Otorhinolaryngological caverns? Did this guy EVER get laid?
Seriously, -- and we MUST be serious when it comes to sex, mustn't we? -- I've read some really bad sex scenes in mysteries and thrillers lately. And okay, I WILL risk being offensive here and 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) propell 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? And why is she always on top?
I understand why there is so much clumsy sex going on in crime novels. I used to write what in the 80s 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 schtupping 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 have to have sex talk. Oh, baby, oh...yes, yes, yes!
Okay, I have a confession to make. In my last book, "A Killing Rain," my hero Louis Kincaid was finally going 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 one night, 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 said, "I can't do this. I got out them 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 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, man. But eventually, Louis got laid without us resorting to a Burt Lancaster/Deborah Kerr beach scene.
Now, lest I be accused of guy-bashing, let's allow some of the 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, 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 Jim Fusilli, talking about his book Tribeca Blues in a recent interview: "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, ah, 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, let's allow a woman a perspective here. Sez veteran mystery novelist Dana Stabenow in a recent interview: "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 turn 55 years old this week. And you know, I am much happier killing people than having sex. But maybe that is a female thing.