Monday, May 26, 2008

No sex please, we’re mystery writers

Vicki here. Rick has tossed out the eternal question: how much is too much? I have pretty strong opinions on that and am enjoying the challenge of thinking through my opinions in order to write them down.

I am a pretty heavy reader (hey, enough with the weight jokes!). I read between one and three books a week. I probably read 90% crime novels, 9% non-fiction, and 1% other types of fiction. And I can’t remember the last time I read a book with a detailed sex scene. Seriously. As for violence, there isn’t much in my reading either.

I mostly read police procedurals of the British tradition, or fairly dark psychological suspense. When it comes to violence, the type of books I read usually have the violence happening off the page, often before the book even begins – the police arrive at the scene and the investigation proceeds, that sort of thing. Perhaps I have a delicate stomach, but I have absolutely no interest in reading anything detailed or gory or drawn-out, thank you very much. But more than that, I am of the opinion that detailed descriptions of violence more often detract from a book, rather than add anything. How so? I have just finished a book that illustrates my point – Lying Dead by Aline Templeton. In this book the body is discovered on the first page. About ¾ of the way through, another body is discovered. The police question witnesses, there are differing points of view regarding the machinations of the locals, the officer in charge of the case has problems with her family and her colleagues. Showing the killings from either the point of view of the dead people or the killer would do absolutely nothing to advance the plot. We know these people are dead. We, and the police, find out how they died from examination of the evidence and piecing together clues. The killer has very specific reasons for killing. He/she (giving nothing away in case you want to read the book) isn’t running around slashing people at random. Yet the ending of the book is an absolute shocker, all the more successful for not a drop of blood being spilled.

Can violence have a part to play? Occasionally. Another example – I have also recently read The Night Lawyer by Michelle Spring. There is a fairly detailed fight scene between the female protagonist and the villain. The fight in this book is essential for showing us the state-of-mind of the protag. (mild-mannered woman pushed to the edge) and for helping us to understand just how much her defeat of her enemy goes towards restoring her confidence in herself. But in this case it is a fight – a battle between two opponents, albeit unequally matched, not a sadistic killer spilling blood for the fun of it.

As for sex – boring! What do they tell us in Creative Writing 101? If a scene doesn’t advance the characters, the plot or tell us something about the setting, cut it. I can’t think of many uses of a sex scene that would do the above. Want to tell us something about the characters’ relationship – almost anything would work better than sex. They’re romantic and loving – try candles and dinner or gentle kindness. They’re bitter and angry – a dinner plate slapped on the table would get that across with a lot fewer words. Is the sex necessary to advance the plot? The only case I can think of is if it’s a rape, and if a book is going to describe a rape in graphic details, you can be pretty sure I won’t be reading it.

Same for violence. If the book is filled with descriptions of different ways to kill people, the author is not challenging my intellect. If I pick up a book, read the blurb, and the words ‘serial killer’ are mentioned, the book goes back on the shelf. I won’t read it. There’s something about SK novels that seem to bring out a writers’ joy in describing even more gruesome killings. (Incidentally, my publisher, Poisoned Pen Press has a no-serial-killers policy – they won’t publish ‘em.)

When I read, I don’t want to be titillated, or horrified, or disgusted, I want to be challenged. Sex and violence rarely do that.

I can't wait to hear what Rick has to say about the subject at his Bloody Words Panel.


Debby (Deborah Turrell) Atkinson said...

Hey, Vicki, I'm pretty much of the same mind. Most details of sex and violence aren't all that interesting. It's kind of like nudity--I'd rather have some aspects left to wonder about. What's going on on people's minds is what gets my attention. When I read fiction--and often non-fiction--I like figuring out why people act the way they do, how it affects others, and learning about aspects of life to which I'm not normally exposed: could be police or other law enforcement procedures, medical or legal procedure, any other profession (Saranella's auto mechanic is wonderful), other cultures, countries, cities, and so on.

I.J.Parker said...

Hi, Vicky. Saw your comment on crime space and wondered. It seems to me there's a place for sex in crime novels -- especially if it complicates the plot and reveals character. It belongs because it is a fact of life and may be an important part of the protagonist's life at the time of the action. But this may be a bit more relevant for a series, because that does more than tell the story of a single crime. It also tells the story of the protagonist's life.
Violence, of course, is a given in crime novels.
The language should be that of the character who's speaking, but I'm not very fond of getting into the head of people who think with a gutter vocabulary.
Hope all is well with you!