Sex & Crime (Not Sex-Crimes).

A panel of writers discussing the subject of sex in crime fiction could easily drift into arguments about gender politics or pontificating about the genre’s persistent reliance on sexualized violence. Now, don’t get me wrong: Those are vitally important topics that writers, readers and critics will continue to grapple with. But in Lisa Levy’s two-part Crime Reads piece (links below), you’ll feel more like you’ve been squeezed in between Robyn Harding, Alex Segura, P.J. Vernon, Kelly J. Ford, Layne Fargo, and Laura Lippman – each a mystery/crime fiction scribe who, to one degree or another, has wrestled with sexual content in their own work – and wonder if you’re the only person at the table who didn’t knock back a few before the fast-paced conversation commenced. There’s precious little pontificating here.

Part One is titled “Let’s Talk About Sex In Crime Fiction: A Roundtable Discussion”. But Levy acknowledges in the first paragraph, “Let’s talk about why we don’t talk about sex in crime fiction”. As she and her roundtable members concede, the plain fact is that many (if not even most) mystery and crime fiction novels tend to steer clear of sex, and I’m not only pointing to cozies.

But let’s be clear: When talking about “sex” in crime fiction, the panel’s not talking about the voyeuristic and sexified violence that permeates so many suspense thrillers and serial killer novels. Whether you think it’s good, bad, puzzingly creepy or downright repellant, many thrillers rely on sexualized stalking, torture, rape and murder. Writers crank ‘em out and readers continue to devour them. But that’s not at all what these writers are addressing. They’re simply talking about sex. Characters who are driven by sex, think about sex or engage in sex…novels that may require sex scenes of whatever duration, detail and level of decadence from vanilla to…well, decadent.

Part Two is “What Are The Sexiest Books In Contemporary Crime Fiction?”. Here the panel tosses out a wide array of very different writers and novels that might be considered ‘sexy’ or at least include scenes in which the protagonists engage in sex. As to why mystery/crime fiction novels frequently seem to sidestep sex? Well, read Levy’s piece at Crime Reads yourself to see what these writers think. Is it because crime fiction typically deals with really awful things – crimes, after all, which often as not include murder – so that sex scenes would seem out of place, intrusive and gratingly gratuitous? Is it because so many mystery and crime fiction novels still feature middle aged white guy private eyes (with no shortage of recovering alcoholics and other troubled souls) whose bedroom antics may not provide for much sizzle? Could the continuing evolution and expansion of the genre comfortably embrace more – and more diverse – sexual content? And even if it could, should it? 

Long before I typed the first sentence for my own current project (The Stiletto Gumshoe, no surprise) and the character was still forming in my head, I knew that there would indeed be sexual content. It was a crucial part of illustrating just who the protagonist was and would help to define her in context of her environment: an insular ethnic blue-collar neighborhood in the late 1950’s/early 1960’s, when enormous social changes were still a few years away. She’d be chastised by her nosy landlady, teased by her friends, completely misunderstood by men and finally forced to do a little soul searching about her behavior (this is 1959, after all) including how some unwise decisions of the romantic (or lusty) variety got her mixed up with blackmailers, thugs with badges and murder in the first place.

But, that’s my project. In a lot of other writers’ work, the same thing might not apply, and what goes on behind the protagonist’s closed bedroom door might well be completely out of place.

Levy and crew don’t really provide answers so much as share questions about sex in crime fiction (while providing a fertile list of writers and novels worth discovering or revisiting). And whether you’re a mystery/crime fiction reader, or a writer agonizing over some sexual content in your projects – and if doing so, then precisely how and how much – this two-part roundtable will give you something to think about. On the fun side, it’ll probably ignite a chuckle or two along the way. Levy’s Crime Reads panel had some fun with this one!

Stage Violence Draws Real Blood: Layne Fargo’s Temper

temper - layne fargo

After back-to-back mystery/crime fiction novels set in 1950’s New York, I was ready for a break, and Layne Fargo’s first novel Temper (2019, Simon & Shuster) provided just that.

Author Wendy Heard mentions Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 film starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, in her dustjacket back cover praise for Fargo’s Temper. It’s a perfect reference. There are no swollen joints or black feathers sprouting out of anyone’s shoulder blades, no practice barres or frayed leg warmers. Temper isn’t set in New York’s ballet world, but in Chicago’s indie theater scene. But much like the darkly surreal Black Swan, Temper deals with passionate creatives’ self-absorbed and manipulative relationships, the wafer-thin line between on stage performances and offstage drama, and the horrors that may be revealed when creativity is fully unleashed.

Black Swan

Struggling actor Kira Rascher lands the role of a lifetime with Joanna Cuyler’s cutting edge theater group, which means she’ll have to work with mercurial actor/director Malcom Mercer, the indie scene’s bad boy, notorious for pushing performers past all reasonable limits and leaving a long trail of broken hearts — and minds — in his wake. Yes, Kira-Joanna-Malcom form a doomed love triangle, but the fact is, Temper is more of a love-and-destruction octagon that sucks in everyone in Kira’s circle, from part-time bi-bedmates to ex’s going way back to high school scandals.

Temper isn’t a mystery novel and couldn’t be labeled crime fiction by any stretch. The cover calls it ‘psychological suspense’, and I’ll go along with that. Like Black Swan, it defies easy categorizing. But it was an excellent read, and for us residents of the big city on the inland ocean, Temper was brimming with spot-on locales and atmosphere. Sure, a savvy reader may guess where the story is inexorably heading (and I did), but it was one heck of darkly fun trek getting there, thanks to Layne Fargo’s skillful multi-POV writing. Check it out.

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