Let’s talk about sex! Let’s talk about why we don’t talk about sex in crime fiction. We talk plenty about stranger rape, and stalking, and sexual assault; about domestic violence, and toxic masculinity, and rape culture; and predators, perverts, and power games. Hell, I’ve talked about those things for years: here, and here, and here, and here. So I was troubled when I tried to think of crime fiction with exciting or provocative sex scenes and I came up with a very short list of writers who write sex well. Since a short list equals a roundtable for me, I started issuing invitations to writers who don’t shy away from sex. Our esteemed panel of Robyn Harding (The Swap), Alex Segura (Pete Fernandez series, and now Star Wars Poe Dameron: Freefall), P.J. Vernon (When You Find Me), Kelly J. Ford (Cottonmouths), Layne Fargo (Temper, and the forthcoming They Never Learn), and Laura Lippman (Sunburn, My Life as a Villainess), were all enthusiastic yeses.
Brief scene-setting: Robyn Harding’s latest, The Swap, debuted at number one on the Canadian bestsellers list. Alex Segura’s Star Wars novel, Poe Dameron, had just come out. And goddess of the zeitgeist, Taylor Swift, dropped her new album the day we chatted.
Without further ado, let’s get down.
“What a great day! New Taylor Swift and sex chat with my favorite writers.”
Lisa Levy: Hi everyone! OK, settle down class. Let’s start with a poll: On a scale of 1 being cloistered and 10 being in Eyes Wide Shut, where would you put crime fiction?
P. J.: I’d say 5.
Lisa: That’s higher than I would give it, Robyn
Layne: I’ll split the difference and say 6!
Robyn : Okay 6
Lisa: What’s your evidence?
Lisa: (not being snotty, just interested in how you formed your opinion)
Robyn: Good point, I have nothing.
Robyn: Jennifer Hillier and Roz Nay include sex.
Robyn: Jennifer’s sex scenes are pretty intense
Lisa : Yes! Female thriller writers use it a lot. Karin Slaughter writes sex scenes too.
Layne: A lot of crime fiction includes sex as a motivator for characters (either pursuit of sex or avoiding/investigating sexual violence), but there’s not a ton of on the page sex.
P. J.: There are times I feel like the good stuff is withheld—Citing Nothing.
Lisa: And agreed about Jennifer.
Layne: Oh yes, Jennifer Hillier is amazing at incorporating sex into her books.
Layne: Even the non-sex scenes, there’s still that tension.
Lisa: Interesting P. J. I think that too. A lot of crime fiction is like a pre-code movie.
Laura: In my experience as a reader, crime fiction sex is either amazing or terrible.
Lisa: OK Laura Example of amazing (then terrible)
Alex: I think I mentioned this to you in our initial exchange, Lisa, but an unfortunately big chunk of sex scenes in crime fiction are cringe-worthy because authors often fall into the same kind of language they use for fight scenes or arguments—the times I’ve read good sex scenes that feel natural and (gasp) fun is more rare, so that’s why I went with five.
Laura Lippman: Sujata Massey’s Rei Shimura books (full disclosure, she’s a friend) had great sex and that was in a COZY series that started in 1997.
Layne: I think of some of my sex scenes as fight scenes tbh Alex
Alex: But you write both well and differently!
Laura: Terrible sex? You mean name names? One of the worst was a book written in the ’90s by a very famous WaPo sports writer, whose name I have honestly forgotten. Worst sex scenes ever. Just woman after after woman having sex with the protag, then dying for plot purposes.
“Vicky [Hendricks] wrote great human-dolphin sex.”
Lisa: One of the things I wanted to talk about was how aggressive a lot of crime fiction sex is. I think writers get caught up in violence and it’s hard to leave it behind when they do write sex scenes.
Alex: I think of Melissa Ginsburg’s Sunset City a lot, and Kelly Braffet because they’re both great at describing sex in a naturalistic way with some intensity vs. just a means to an end, which is how I see it written a lot of the time.
Laura: VICKY HENDRICKS.
Lisa: Agreed, I like Sunset City a lot.
Alex: Yes, Vicky Hendricks!
Lisa: I’ve never read her. Fill me in.
Layne: YES Vicky Hendricks! 100%
Laura: Vicky wrote great human-dolphin sex.
Lisa : I read something about that in the early days of the Internet: human-dolphin sex is A Thing.
Alex: Miami Purity is just oozing with sexuality and it’s not necessarily graphic or more than an R rating
Laura: Her first book was a Double Indemnity influenced thriller. She had that weird problem of getting overpaid, but it was great.
Alex: It’s one of my favorites. Such a great novel.
P. J.: Speaking for myself, sex can be anxiety-riddled and terrifying and sometimes good.
I just watched Drunk History on dolphin sex… it was grand??
Lisa: Suspense is an interesting concept here.
Kelly: When done well, they feel organic to the story and don’t necessarily stand out to me. They’re a piece of a whole. And yes, to what Alex said. Sometimes, with the sex scenes that don’t quite work for me, it feels like there are dynamics lacking for different emotions. High and low intensity scenes often written with the same register.
Kelly: Oh, the Drunk History Dolphin Sex ep!
“What’s hotter than kissing? Not kissing.”
Lisa: Keeping characters who are attracted to each other apart is one of the great plots of our time. How do you resolve that without turning into the 8th season of Cheers?
Laura: The sex scenes are, too often, used for pacing and MacGuffins. Gotta slow this down. Let’s have the protag have sex. Now let’s kill his sexual partner! Stakes rise!
P. J.: Kelly, you bring the heat in all the right ways in your writing!
Robyn: I tend to write sex and violence the same way. I write the foreplay, but not the graphic stuff. Just enough to keep a reader intrigued/titillated.
Alex: Not all sex scenes need to drive the plot, as in lead to a clue or reveal something—but they do need to propel the characters. I find that there are a lot of sex scenes that just seem to happen because the two characters are in the room and something “intense” happened before.
Layne: Letting your characters actually have sex can diffuse the suspense and tension, and as thriller writers we’re always trying to ramp that up. So I like keeping my characters suffering in their unresolved sexual tension as long as possible.
P. J.: Violence is frightening when the reader has to fill in the gaps with their own fears. Sex is the same. Don’t give me graphic details, just enough to let my imagination run
Lisa: Yes, I agree Alex. There are some gratuitous sex scenes in crime fiction for sure.
Laura: Always hard to be definitive—no one reads everything—but I cannot think of a modern sex scene I’ve read that equals Cain’s “rip me” sequence in Postman.
Alex: Sometimes the buildup is more interesting
Kelly: Yes, to Layne’s point, sex can totally diffuse things. My ex used to say: What’s hotter than kissing? Not kissing.
Lisa: Agree Laura I think Sunburn is as sexy as crime fiction gets without being too explicit. Which is also how Cain did it.
Layne: Exactly, Kelly
P. J.: Layne an actual comment from the editor of my Grindr thriller “nothing beats weaponized blue balls.”
Kelly: The anticipation is everything.
Alex: Sunburn is a great example.
Laura: My last three books (four, when the next one comes out) are sex-laden and I love the fact that no one seems to notice.
Lisa: Oh I want a whole *series* of Grindr thrillers.
Lisa: Laura I did! Me!
P. J.: I have the personal inventory of content already haha.
Robyn: Sometimes I write boring married sex and it’s almost comic relief from the tension.
Kelly: Where it gets a thumbs down from me is when the sex doesn’t fit the scene. Like Robyn said, comic relief is great! Not all sex scenes need to bring heat.
Lisa : Robyn that’s because you also write not boring, not married sex.
Alex: Agree, Kelly.
“A lacklustre sex life can be a great motivator to get yourself into other kinds of trouble.”
Lisa: OK, if it’s not bringing heat, what is it doing?
Laura: When writers do sex well, it goes unnoticed. And it should. It’s like the food, the weather, the location, part of quotidian life.
Alex: And it’s okay when the scene feels fun and light—it’s about pleasure, and when it involves two people who are invested in each other, that kind of scene is unique, when it should be more common.
Kelly: As noted above, comic relief, diffusing tension, providing character insight (“Is That All There Is?“)
Robyn: Sometimes sex can build the character. A lacklustre sex life can be a great motivator to get yourself into other kinds of trouble.
P. J.: I loved how Robyn just gave her protag a gun before she meets her sugar daddy for sex. Holy hell that was fabulous.
Layne: Showing another side of the character—who they are in private vs. in their career or other public settings
Kelly: love that, layne
Laura: Obviously, there are crime books that are all about the sexual tension. But when it’s not about that, the sex shouldn’t stand out. No one remembers the sex in Gone Girl. Nor should they. They should remember Nick studying the shape of Amy’s head.
Lisa: I think Alex and Laura are onto something. We should just read it as part of life, but I think sex has so much significance in our culture that it’s hard not to dissect it.
Robyn: Thanks PJ :rolling_on_the_floor_laughing:
P. J.: Don’t we think about sex, like, a shit ton? Is it weird to not be factored into a story where so much conflict is internal?
Laura Lippman: I know this is a huge tangent, but I introduced my daughter to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog yesterday and she asked me why a man would become a villain to impress a woman and that led to a discussion of incels. (She’s 10.)
Lisa: Get them early, Laura
Laura: Pelecanos has a really good book—blanking on the title—in which the female character has a driven, dangerous sex life, but it’s a side story, it’s not the story. I thought he did it well.
Alex: Almost as grating as the idea that a PI can knock back 12 martinis and save the day is the trope that the male hero has to sleep with dozens of people to show how tough he is—and we still see a lot of that.
Lisa: Yes, P. J. not thinking about sex is weird. So is not writing about it in books which have relationships. Yet it happens all the time.
Robyn: I seem to use sex as the impetus for crimes. The emotions it stirs up, the obsession, the complications.
Alex: Yes! Which book is that?!
Kelly: Ugh, yes, Alex. Give me the Tender Men. I love them!
Kelly: I think there’s this idea that a man can’t be tender and tough. Let’s dispel that.
Alex: I write a lot of mistake sex—when two people that care about each other fall into bed and it’s clearly A Bad Idea. But I think that rings true to a lot of people.
Lisa: Sex is the impetus for crimes in the real world.
Laura Lippman: The one with the parole officer, Alex. Might have followed his serial killer book?
Alex: Drama City?
Lisa: Kelly Can you think of anyone who is both tender and tough?
Laura: That’s it. Drama City.
Kelly: Bc hard
Alex: An underappreciated GP novel!
Lisa: Help a brother out, anyone. For Kelly
Laura: I’m not a huge Chandler fan, but I think Marlowe embodies those qualities although I hate women on a pedestal.
Lisa: I also thought Dennis Lehane’s last novel—the one told from a woman’s POV [Since We Fell]—had a decent sex scene.
Alex: Yes, agree
Kelly: Matt Coleman’s characters are fairly tender, I think. P. J.
Laura: Also, one of Crumley’s protags, although I always forget which is the nice one and which is the sociopath.
Layne: All the examples I can think of are from romance novels, not crime fiction! I agree we could use more tender/tough characters in CF
Lisa: That’s interesting Layne since romance is still considered a woman’s genre. Do we think female readers expect more sex in a book than male?
Robyn: Yes, I do.
Lisa: Or are people looking for different qualities in a sex scene?
Alex: I think they expect better written sex! And they should. We all should.
Kelly: Yes, to Laura’s point re: women on a pedestal. It’s like if you have a more tender man then the male character has to do that or save the damsel in distress.\
Influences: Bodice rippers, Jack the Ripper, VC Andrews, The Thorn Birds, Ayn Rand
Laura: So I’m probably the oldest one here and I recently had to write an essay about Lolita and I was reminded that I’m so old that I come from a generation in which the printed word was the only way to access smut.
Lisa: Laura I remember those days. I often wonder if the internet porn is the new magazines under the mattress.
Kelly: Oh, Laura, I had to sneak to the lesbian bookstore for smut!
Robyn: I’m that old too. I ate up all the VC Andrews novels as a tween.
Kelly: OMG ROBYN
Kelly: VC ANDREWS.
Lisa: Oh Robyn we should talk. Incestuous teens! How did that become so popular with 13-year-old girls?
Alex: I read The Godfather when I was eight and…well, that was something.
Robyn: My mom had no idea what they were about. Sex sex sex
Layne: I just read Flowers in the Attic for the first time a few months ago! Sorry I missed it as a teenager, I can only imagine the bizarre influences it would have had on my work
Laura: And I think that’s relevant because in a world where it’s now so easy to get porn—boy, do I miss the time when you had to read if you were underage and wanted sex.
Lisa: Oh, those VC Andrews books were everything!
Alex: Never too late, Layne.
Layne : Good point Alex :joy:
Kelly: VC Andrews=formative
Lisa: Who else is formative for you in terms of sex/romance?
Lisa: Twisted sex/romance I should clarify.
P. J.: I don’t want to underestimate the power of honest sex portrayal in crime fiction. If I had seen honest gay sex in the books I was reading, I’d have other pop culture points of reference besides Will & Grace for when I experienced toxic and co-dependent relationships/flings as a closeted young person.
Laura: So I can see why sex seems optional in CF—it’s everywhere and it’s being done better in most places. But if I know what your PI has for lunch every day . . .
Lisa: And what he eats, and wears, and how he answers the phone…
Alex: Who are they sleeping with?! And how?
Kelly: Honestly, whatever my grandmas had on their bookshelves. My Grandma Ford read all historical romance and my Grandma Sue read true crime. Formative.
Robyn: I read my grandma’s copy of The Thorne Birds. Priest sex!
Lisa : Kelly, so bodice rippers and Jack the ripper?
Laura: There really is good sex in some cozies. Maybe not explicit, but you feel it. Maron, Pickard —their series characters led full lives.
Kelly: Basically. It was awesome.
Layne: I probably shouldn’t admit this in a public forum, but: Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Incredibly problematic, incredibly influential on my imagination as a young writer.
Lisa : Robyn Yes, I thought Rachel Ward was soooo gorgeous.
Layne: (NOT the politics, just the extremely messed-up sex scenes!)
Kelly: Rachel Ward was an early infatuation
Alex: I remember discovering that one of my mom’s relatives had written a novel at a young age and I was really impressed, so I read it and…it just had so many awkward sex scenes. Like, robots. Even that young I knew it wasn’t being done well. Writing good sex is hard, and even a young kid can tell.