Sex in Mysteries: too much or not enough?

It’s always a hot potato, that sex question. In the crime novel, the mystery, thriller, suspense story, there is often a secondary narrative thrust besides whodunit, ‘when will the bomb blow up,’ or ‘can the world be saved.’ The romantic interest feeds the story too and is often employed by writers to further character development or just provide a little zest to the plot. That is not to say every mystery novel includes one; many a fine book does not. So how do you like your mysteries? Cool and noirish or hot and bothered?

The Bluejay Shaman new coverAfter I wrote my first mystery, The Bluejay Shaman, introducing art dealer/sleuth Alix Thorssen, I heard from a few friends and readers: More sex please! I laughed and  said ‘duly noted!’ Sex is a human need, a motivator, an obsession with some and a fascination to many. To exclude it on principle in any novel seems prudish and just unnatural. But to include it in a mystery about, say, an art gallery or stolen artifacts, just because your readers say they want more sex is also unnatural. It should rise organically from the story. But once you’ve let two characters fall in lust, let them act on their desires, what then? Does your mystery slow to a stop? Does it diverge into ‘Fifty Shades’? Have you let the plot-line of the lovers take over the main story, the solving of a crime? Then it’s time to reassess. If you’re writing a crime novel you are writing for an audience that expects crime solving to be front and center. You can dilly-dally in the bedroom (or the desk-top or… ) but get back to the main question, the sooner the better.

Many romance readers also read crime novels. Most of them are women and they like a romantic element even if a novel is not truly a ‘romantic suspense.’ Many avid readers keep diaries of their books read since they devour so many it’s often hard to remember what they’ve read and what it was about. Some will also rate the sex or violence levels. Is the sex ‘N/A’ — as in none at all? Is it rough? Does it include violent rape? These are things that can turn off (or on) potential readers. Know who you write for — your key reader. You can’t please everyone but shocking everyone won’t work for you either. Chances are your ideal reader is comfortable with some sex and some violence, but not necessarily together. It’s up to you to figure out what you’re comfortable with and how it fits into your story.

Vintage Mystery: Don’t do this today

If a reader wants lots of sex, graphic or otherwise, they will read a different sort of book. In a straight mystery there is no inherent need for sex unless it makes the main plot more understandable or dramatic. BUT — in the thriller or the suspense novel two potential mates often work together, in a more realistic setting like a police department or the CIA. They may or may not do what comes naturally. But it seems they often do, at least in my novels. One thing I hate is the use of romantic desire that is never expressed or acted upon but just used as a carrot to get the reader to read on. It’s like the old saw about there being a gun in the story: if you put it in there it better go off. If they’re consenting adults and there is no good reason they shouldn’t consummate their relationship, don’t be a tease. Just like those guys in bars, readers won’t like you for it.

This question came to me as I wrote a rather hot sex scene in my sequel to ‘Blackbird Fly,‘ coming this May, ‘The Girl in the Empty Dress.’ Fairly graphic, I guess, but nothing over the top. (No throbbing members please!) It remains to be seen if readers will find it adds to the plot. I think it does. (And it sure was fun.) This new novel is a women’s suspense novel, like ‘Blackbird,’ but I feel it being a little more suspense-ish. Merle Bennett’s life isn’t quite so upside down this time but she’s back in France and things are getting dicey again!

How do you like your mysteries? Steamy, sexy, clinical, good v. evil? How much is enough: once or twice? Bring it on? Do you fade to black or show-and-tell? Is romance a factor or will any stranger do? Comfortable with violence in the act or a bit feminist and/or squeamish? All questions about yourself to explore before you include sex in your fiction.

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  • Hi, Lise,

    I enjoyed reading your blog. And it touches on something that concerns me as well. My mystery novels, the Kim Reynolds series in particular and Death Legacy, are romantic mysteries. Some readers have indicated they love the romance in the novels because it makes the characters much more human and realistic, not just cardboard characters who go about solving murders. Obviously, you are another author who creates added dimension to your fiction. Keep up the good work!

    • A

      It’s an interesting balance. But I feel like you do, Jacqueline, that many readers enjoy a romantic interest as long as it doesn’t take away from the crime-solving. You might like this older post about a review I got once from a man, about books ‘about chicks by chicks.’ Good for a laugh anyway: What he said. (See the link under the tags, above, under ‘related.’)

  • The idea of romance and mystery….which go so well together!….is something that I had never thought about until recently. Of course there is Elizabeth Peters with her Amelia Peabody mysteries which always include some lust and satisfaction between married and happiy horny adults, and lately Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Gabaldon’s sex scenes, like Peters, are for the romantic mystery readers like myself. What her characters do is make love. Even when it’s graphic, it’s tastful. For most women, I think, reading about characters who can make commitments, are wonderful lovers, and can solve crimes…..priceless! I still want heroes, flaws are fine, but good lovers are hard to find. Bring ’em on!

    • A

      Totally agree, Sharon! I love a little love in my mysteries. I think you’ll approve of the new one! Happy new year!

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