Ever wanted a crime writer to talk dirty to you? You’ve come to the right place. Yes, I am back with the second part of our roundtable about sex in crime fiction, joined by the illustrious panel: 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). In this half: sad sex scenes, Costco moms, and a few recommendations for writers who bring the sizzle. We’re picking up with influences and writers who write good sex scenes.
Let’s get it on.
“It’s like sex is a perfume and someone broke a bottle on the book.”
Lisa: There’s a reason why there is a Bad Sex Writing prize
Alex: I’ll vote for Kelly Braffet’s Save Yourself, which was really influential in terms of mistake sex for me as a writer.
Laura: I always remember a line from [Margaret] Maron’s series about the judge—the boyfriend has been introduced in a previous book, but when he enters the next book, he’s introduced as “What I did on my summer vacation.” And whatever word followed, it was perfect, the equivalent of a tiger growl.
P. J.: but there should be a BAD [poisonous and unhealthy] sex prize tho.
Lisa: I like that, Laura.
Robyn: Has anyone read David Sedaris’s story on finding a badly written porn book in Naked? I nearly threw up I laughed so hard.
Lisa: Yes! It’s good Sedaris.
P. J.: Good point re: Sedaris… funny how creative non-fiction can nail honest sex
Laura: And, oh my god, you cannot talk about sex in crime fiction without talking about Lauren Milne Henderson’s Sam Jones novels. Again, a friend, but oh my god, those are books that lived up to the blurb that Sam was a punk Miss Marple.
Laura: But, OK, if I were in the mood for a really sexy READ, there’s no way I’m looking at crime fiction.
Lisa: I read those not too long ago, Laura. They’re delightful, but I also love the Rebecca Chance books. Now there’s a writer who doesn’t shy away from sex!
Alex: I also loved Jennifer Hillier’s Jar of Hearts for many reasons, but she writes sex really well—it never feels distant or overdone.
Kelly: Right. I can think of a ton of great ones, but they’re not crime fiction.
Laura: I do think Jennifer is good at sex.
Layne: Jar of Hearts is so twisted! One of my favorites
Laura Lippman: WRITING about sex.
Kelly: Oh, Wendy Heard’s The Kill Club is SEXY
Robyn: Jennifer is fearless when it comes to sex scenes.
Lisa: That’s what’s interesting. So much innovation in CF in the last five years, but this is still a problem area.
Layne: Yes Kelly That shower scene…
Alex: It sounds weird to say, but the Claire DeWitt books are sexy even though Claire (rarely, IIRC) has sex in them? Maybe I just love Sara’s prose.
Lisa: No, I agree, Alex They are often sad sex scenes, but that’s Claire.
Laura Lippman: I think part of the CF sex problem is that terrible things are happening and while I’m sure people have sex during the most dire times (because of the most dire times) it can feel a little out of place.
Kelly: And, not many would classify Sarah Waters as crime fiction. But it’s crime fiction! The Paying Guests. My god.
Laura: Megan Abbott’s books are drenched in sex. It’s like sex is a perfume and someone broke a bottle on the book.
Lisa: Sarah Waters for sure! That’s crime fiction. So is Fingersmith.
Kelly: She does sex in fiction so well.
Robyn : I read Defending Jacob ages ago but recently watched the series. Their son was being tried for murder and they were constantly boning in the closet. It felt a bit weird…
Alex: Yes! Megan’s books are very sexy—and they really know how to use suspense to create sexual tension
Kelly: Oh, yes! Megan Abbott! Duh!
Robyn: Oh yes Sarah Waters! And Megan Abbott.
Lisa : Megan is not afraid of writing sexual tension between people of the same gender, even in a book that’s not “queer.”
Layne: Especially in Give Me Your Hand.
Alex: Yes, her most recent was a great example.
Layne: (although I would argue that book is extremely queer)
Laura Lippman: I also think it’s interesting to read Alafair Burke’s stand-alones—I think, in writing with Mary HIggins Clark, she found a way to use Mary’s characteristic reticence, yet ramp up in the sex in her books.
Kell: Oh, Give Me Your Hand. For sure. Same. Super queer.
Lisa: Yes, also in The End of Everything and Queenpin. The women have all the sexual tension.
Alex: I agree, Layne
Kelly: But I make everything queer when reading. Read into everything.
Laura: Heck, Dare Me, the sexual tension is among the female characters.
Layne: Same here Kelly.
Lisa: Exactly Laura Lippman.
Alex: I’m waiting patiently for the Kaylor details, Kelly.
Lisa: The coach’s husband is just a plot point.
Kelly: Oh dang. I will get them to you! I’m trying to keep up here! Hahah.
Laura: Men—they’re just fluff in Megan’s novels.
“Costco moms wouldn’t read it”
P. J. Vernon: Everyone I ever read is queer until they aren’t and then they still are Kelly.
Lisa: Who else do we think is doing a good job of this—straight, queer, with aliens?
Layne : Kristen Lepionka—some fabulous, understated sex scenes in her Roxane Weary series.
Laura: Agree about Kristen.
Lisa: I confess I had a very hard time thinking of a middle-aged white guy who would be appropriate for this roundtable. So I left them out. I figured they’ve had the floor long enough.
Laura: I was just about to ask—OK, who are the middle age white guys who do this well? Pelecanos, although he skews het normative, male.
Robyn: Does My Dark Vanessa factor into this conversation?
Lisa: Great minds Laura Lippman.
Alex: I’m honored to be here!
Lisa: It could, Robyn.
Layne: The sex scenes in My Dark Vanessa were so effective, they made me physically queasy.
Robyn: It was far from sexy but really well done.
Robyn: Same Layne!
Laura: I haven’t read My Dark Vanessa, I confess.
Alex: Pelecanos and Lehane come to mind, in terms of men who write sex well
Robyn: It’s very good. Very disturbing.
Lisa: I think that we are seeing a lot of sex scenes where young women are being exploited and the level of awareness the writer brings is something to discuss.
Robyn: I am realizing I don’t read a lot of men!
P. J.: I don’t want to spoil anything but John Fram’s The Bright Lands takes queer sex to unflinching places and is a powerhouse of a horror/gothic tale
Kelly: That is my problem with coming up with answers, Robyn!
Layne: Some might consider the sex in My Dark Vanessa gratuitous, but it’s the central crime, right? We’re seeing the crime take place in real time, and we can’t look away
Alex: I need to read it
Lisa: Lisa Lutz’s last book also did not have sex per se but was about sex on a very meaningful level.
Kelly: I was gonna say, John Fram. HOLY COW.
Kelly : Oh, Alex, I can mail you his (if you’re talking John Fram, sorry, book! I have an extra copy I forgot I bought.
Robyn: Excited for John Fram.
Lisa: I agree, Layne And there are more books along those lines coming out.
Alex: Alissa Nutting also writes fantastic and disturbing sex scenes. Tampa is a wild ride.
Robyn: Is that the cover with the buttonhole?
Layne: Yes, Tampa is unforgettable (though I wish I could scrub parts of it from my brain)
Alex: Yeah, same
Layne: Yes Robyn Although I have a hardcover copy of Tampa with a black velvet cover
Laura Lippman: OK, so this is weird, but I decided BECAUSE QUARANTINE to rewatch that Bochco show, Murder One. And it’s about the rape/murder OF A 15-YEAR-OLD. AND HER AGE IS ONLY RELATIVE AS A LEGAL POINT, NO ONE SEEMS THAT UPSET THAT A 15-YEAR-OLD WAS HAVING SEX WITH LOTS AND LOTS OF ADULT MEN, POSSIBLE BECAUSE SHE HAD A DRUG HABIT.
Lisa: Laura I tried to watch it and found it slow slow slow
Robyn : I loved that show.
Lisa: I did too. Law & Order has totally changed TV crime shows. Now if there isn’t a body in the first seven minutes I’m out.
Alex: My 4yo has alerted me that he needs his snack now, so I may have to duck out
Laura: The show’s insane twists and weirdness are still enjoyable. It is, in the end, about the legal “process.” But the victim could have been an adult.
Alex: I’m curious to read Bochco’s autobio that he self-published before his death
Lisa: They might seem silly but writing list after list of books with “Girl” in the title really gets you thinking about how we use girls in this culture.
Robyn: It’s disturbing that I watched that show and don’t even remember that the victim was a teenager!
Alex: Lisa thanks for having me and I hope I added to the chat! Hugs to everyone
Lisa: Lovely to have you Alex
Laura Lippman: I mentioned writing an essay about Lolita—it’s for an anthology coming out this fall. And, of course, I wrote about Lolita as a detective story. And one thing that really bothers me is how people try to downplay the pedophilia.
Lisa: There is a memoir coming out or maybe just out by a woman who had a Lolita-like affair with her teacher. Like My Dark Vanessa in real life.
P. J.: when shopping Bath Haus I actually heard “Costco Mom’s wouldn’t read it”… like, first of all don’t speak on behalf of ppl just trying to buy a jug of peanut butter for cheap when you control what’s on the Costco table, but also examine why you’re cool with all the sexual abuse but not two consenting men?
Lisa: Or why rape is okay but married sex is boring?
Laura: In fact, one of the most notable Lolita scholars (Appel, whose course I took at college) argues that Humbert transcends his crimes/redeems himself. I don’t agree. And it absolutely flies in the face of what we know about pedophiles.
Kelly: Costco moms are reading a lot of MLM fiction.
P. J.: married sex is the best sex because folks aren’t afraid of making mistakes… hot married sex please!
Laura: I might say something dangerous here, but . . . a lot of readers who love incredibly violent, incredibly twisted, super rapey books are . . . straight, middle-aged women.
Lisa: There’s no redemption for Humbert. That’s not the way Nabokov works.
Kelly: That’s a fact!
Robyn: Laura you need to read My Dark Vanessa for your Lolita essay.
Lisa: Again, Laura Lippman 50 Shades. By far the most popular sex-themed book of the last decade or more.
Laura: Jackie Susann knew that her readers wanted to see her beautiful, successful characters MISERABLE. I think that’s true of certain corners of the CF world.
Laura: Robyn, my Lolita essay was locked six months ago!
Robyn: My Lovely Wife by Sam Downing has a married couple into the most violent kink imaginable. Such a wild read!
Lisa : Oh I love Jackie Susann! I wrote a piece for Lit Hub about that book and the Rebecca Chance books asking why books written by women about sex are classified as trash.
Lisa: I thought My Lovely Wife was terrific.
Robyn: Loved it. Such a fresh take.
Laura: Someone taught my kid the word “slut.” I’ve tried to explain to her that it’s on a par with ugly racist nicknames, that it’s a false value, that there’s nothing wrong with liking sex and the only thing that matters in sex is that both people give full consent and enjoy what they’re doing. I almost said, “Both people or however many people are involved” but I decided I didn’t need to give her that much information.
“What am I going to do, write books about modest, well-behaved bisexuals?”
Kelly: Carrying on from a previous thought. Apropos of nothing…. Sometimes authors focus on the sex mechanics that they forget the desire. And that’s a lovely weapon to wield in crime fiction.
P. J.: I’m knee-deep in The Swap and was thrilled with your poly characters, Robyn.
Lisa: Layne’s Temper is great on desire.
Laura: In a world that’s increasingly without shame, desire is still a reliable reason for people to do crazy things.
Kelly: It’s really my only reason.
P. J.: I mean, follow through in the absence of unbridled desire is a tall order for me.
Kelly: I’m a real sucker for crime and desire. It hooks me every time.
Layne: As a queer author, I’ve found writing sexually-charged books to be a bit of a Catch-22. I get complaints about the “slutty bisexual” stereotype, because my characters are promiscuous, and many of them happen to be queer.
Lisa: Yes, sexual desire and desire for money are the two easiest motives.
P. J.: Fuck those complaints Layne
Robyn: I agree Layne
Laura: I was a huge fan of Declan Hughes’s PI novels set in Ireland in the 21st century because shame was still a credible motivation.
Kelly: Oh, yes. Shame, esp when related to sex.
Lisa: Agreed Layne I think it’s just people’s prudishness. If we are going to make CF a genre that is in step with the culture then attitudes about sex have to change.
Layne : Agreed, P. J. What am I going to do, write books about modest, well-behaved bisexuals? Where’s the fun in that?
Kelly : NO FUN.
P. J. Vernon: We have Victorian literature okay?
Laura: Imagine The Big Sleep in 2020 with Kris Jenner at the helm
Lisa: And that’s sexy if you know where to look
Layne: Victorian literature is the kinkiest of all IMO
Laura Lippman: “There are naked pictures of my daughter? Let me monetize that.”
“I see queer people everywhere.”
P. J: hahaha… true! Maybe Victorian baggage is the right way to say it
Lisa: The classics are full of weird sexual tension—Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, etc
P. J. Vernon: YES Rebecca!
Lisa : Yes, and Highsmith.
Kelly : Queer… desire.
Lisa: QUEER AS RIPLEY
Robyn: Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Anna Karenina
Kelly: See? I see queer people everywhere.
Layne: Yes, absolutely. I’m writing an extremely queer Gothic novel right now, so I’ve been thinking about those classics a lot lately.
P. J. Vernon: The Bible
Lisa: Gothic is usually queer. It’s so subversive.
Kelly: The Haunting of Hill House… Winter’s Bone is actually queer. Fight me.
Laura: Yes, and that brings us back to the eternal problem—CF’s origins are so conservative.
Kelly: Those scenes are really tender. There you go! Daniel Woodrell!
Lisa: No, I agree. Winter’s Bone is about a girl who needs to leave her family and doing so poses considerable risk. Risk is queer.
Laura: Well given that fight scene in Winter’s Bone—wouldn’t dream of fighting you on it.
P. J.: what if queerness and sexual promiscuity weren’t subversive… what if it was just Tuesday night…
P. J.: and with murder
Lisa: I was thinking of that, Laura. When you read Woolrich or Cain you don’t get that same prudish feeling that I get when I’m reading contemporary middle-aged men.
Layne : Sounds good to me, P. J.
Lisa : Well, who’s being promiscuous? CF has the double-standard going big time.
Laura: I think increasingly it’s not subversive. I have a lot of young writer friends, 20s, early 30s, and sexuality is so much more fluid now.
Kelly: Thank goodness
Robyn: Huge double standard in traditional CF
Lisa : But I don’t think that’s in CF yet, Laura. What’s taking so long?
P. J.: 100% and it seems to hinge on whether or not it fits within a straight white man’s masturbatory fantasies or not. And that’s one ride I am not down to get on
Laura: I was listening to a podcast today that reminded me of how really fucked up DePalma’s work is.
Laura: Well, our readers skew old. And they’re embedded in the patriarchy, although they may not see it.
Robyn: Laura which podcast?
Lisa: He’s got a major cross-dressing fetish.
Kelly : They definitely don’t see it!
Laura: “This Had Oscar Buzz.” It was a discussion of Bonfire of the Vanities.
Laura Lippman: But—Dressed to Kill!!!!!!!
Lisa: Again, DRESSED
Robyn: I’m going to listen!
“CF could learn a lot from romance. THERE I SAID IT”.
Lisa: OK, let’s try and wrap up.
Layne: Many publishers have a more conservative idea of what readers want too. So they’re perpetuating this issue, just assuming readers won’t go for narratives that push the boundaries and so not publishing those books (or not promoting them when they do publish them).
Layne: This has been such a fantastic conversation, thrilled to be included!
Kelly: Yes, thank you!
Laura: I’m lucky—my editor of 24 years (!!!!!) publishes a lot of romance, so she’s pro-sex. CF could learn a lot from romance. THERE I SAID IT.
Lisa: That’s interesting, Layne I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you and Robyn are published by the same imprint.
P. J.: Thank y’all so much! disclosure: I came here for the book recs and y’all delivered.
Laura: Enjoyed this and I am leaving with a lot of recs, too.
Kelly: At the very least, a lot of CF authors should buy The Guide to Getting It On. Just as a first step.
Lisa: Any more sexy books we can tell readers about?
Robyn: I think readers want to read about sex. History proves it with some of the titles we discussed here. Publishers may have their own prudish values but that’s their issue.
Lisa : I’m definitely getting that Vicky Hendricks.
Robyn : Roz Nay’s Our Little Secret is sexy/obsessive.
Layne : One of my absolute favorites that I never seen anyone talking about is Love Is Read by Sophie Jaff—supernatural serial killer book, absolutely SCORCHING sexual tension
Lisa: Yes Robyn She’s really good.
Laura: All I know is that, just as CF has gotten wise to the cliche of the alcoholic/dissipated investigator, I would love to see more books where the main character has lots of sex just because he/she really likes sex and it’s not a problem.
Layne: Also Halley Sutton’s The Lady Upstairs, which comes out this November, is one of the sexiest books I’ve ever read
Lisa: That would be substantial progress, Laura
Laura: Heading out. This was fun and I am flattered to have been included.
Robyn : Layne I have it! Dying to read!
Lisa: Thanks, Laura
Layne: You will love it Robyn
Robyn: Thank you all! Delighted to be included Lisa
P. J. Vernon: PLEASE READ THIS C-SUITE FOLKS…. and thank y’all again for a great chat!!!
Lisa: thanks for being here everyone!