Sex and violence in crime novels – How much is too much?

Sex and ViolenceA guest post from Kate Naylor

Some readers love nothing better than being so traumatised they can’t sleep nights without leaving the lights blazing. Others tiptoe their way through the gore with eyes squeezed shut, more interested in the storyline than the detail. Some flip past sex scenes, re-joining the plot once the hot stuff’s safely over and done with. Others turn down the page of a good, raunchy sex scene for future reference!

I’ve been talking to a bunch of fellow thriller novel fans about the issue of sex and gore in crime fiction, and it’s a sticky one. Here’s what I discovered.

Men versus women

For start, a reader’s sex doesn’t seem to have much to do with it. I’ve spoken to women who adore a deeply detailed, super-gory guts-landing-on-the-floor-with-a-splat fest, myself included. I’ve also discussed the matter with hairy-arsed rugby playing, beer quaffing blokes who feel faint at the very sight of the word ‘blood’, never mind wading through pages of the stuff.

When it’s all about context…

Context can make a difference. Most of us have sex. But we also go to the loo, sleep, get dressed and go to work on a regular basis. Just because we do it, and it’s part of the human condition, it isn’t necessarily instrumental to a thriller plot. When you’re deep into a terrific storyline and the protagonist suddenly jumps into bed with someone out of the blue, it can be off putting. In my case, I prefer Joel’s approach. The door shuts, the scene fades and I don’t have to join Lou Mason in bed with his latest squeeze. It’s their business, not mine. In the context of the plot, it’s enough to know they had a good time!

Subtle or overt?

What about overt and graphic violence? I’m a big Jeffrey Deaver fan, and he doesn’t exactly pull any punches when it comes to putting his characters through the gore mill. His Lincoln Rhyme crime books, for example, are wince-worthy masterpieces of frequent and graphic suffering. But because his baddies are quite spectacularly bad, it goes with the territory. You pay your money, you take your choice. On the other hand the British writing team behind Nicci French novels focuses harder on the psychological and emotional aspects of murder and mayhem, with minimal exchange or spilling of bodily fluids.

Firing the imagination versus the in-your-face obvious

Some people claim their imagination does the job for them. Create a dark room, a creaking stairway and mysterious heavy breathing and they fill in the fine details all on their own, scaring the bejesus out of themselves in the process. Others like a painted-by-numbers picture with every horrid detail laid bare for them to pick over.

Readers who never even get there!

I also spoke to a handful of people who have never read a crime fiction novel. Why do they avoid the genre? The predominant feeling was that they don’t like to read about violence, don’t like being scared and would rather not know about life’s criminal underbelly, full stop. A bit like sticking their fingers in their literary ears. Sad when there are so many superb authors out there creating intelligent, beautifully written books, many with the full complement of gore but just as many with a lighter touch.

Horses for courses

My overall impression is that it’s horses for courses. Pick a jury of twelve and you’ll find twelve different attitudes to sex and violence in crime thrillers. Some will love plenty of both, in as much detail as possible, full-on and in your face. Others will prefer the minimum, just enough to whet the imagination without putting them off their dinner.

Worthy of debate?

Let’s get a debate going. It’d be great to hear your views. What makes your toes curl with literary pleasure, and what would you avoid like the plague?

14 Responses to “Sex and violence in crime novels – How much is too much?”

  1. John Hancock

    I find that I don't prefer elaborate details of lovemaking. I realize others do, but for me, I'm old enough to know what goes where, so unless it means something to the plot, like that particular act or fetish is a clue, I find it distracting and not in a good way.
    I think if I really wanted that sort of thing, there are other, better places to get it. I don't need it in my crime novel.
    However, like ANYTHING, if its done well, I'm going to be more accepting of it.
    So, how's that for being all over the board?
    Violence is different to me because I think its more germane to crime and it seems natural you'd kill or torture someone you just met, rather than go to bed with someone you just met.

    Reply
    • Kate Naylor

      Hey John. Thanks for your ideas. Interesting stuff. I reckon being all over the board is a good thing. When you get too stuck in the mud about what you read and write, you narrow your options and your mind.

      Joel recommends reading, reading, reading and writing, writing, writing. What are you reading at the moment?

      I've been enjoying Wally Lamb, John Steinbeck and Mary Wesley so far this month, on a gentle, cultured sort of kick. I tend to do a stint of crime novels followed by a week or two of adventures, then a few new books hot off the shelves, then a period of reading old / obscure novels to keep things interesting.

      Is there anything so good you read it again and again?

      Take care, and may all your reads (and writes) be truly marvellous!

      K

      Reply
    • Kate Naylor

      Hey John. Thanks for your ideas. Interesting stuff. I reckon being all over the board is a good thing. When you get too stuck in the mud about what you read and write, you narrow your options and your mind.

      Joel recommends reading, reading, reading and writing, writing, writing. What are you reading at the moment?

      I've been enjoying Wally Lamb, John Steinbeck and Mary Wesley so far this month, on a gentle, cultured sort of kick. I tend to do a stint of crime novels followed by a week or two of adventures, then a few new books hot off the shelves, then a period of reading old / obscure novels to keep things interesting.

      Is there anything so good you read it again and again?

      Take care, and may all your reads (and writes) be truly marvellous!

      K

      Reply
    • John Hancock

      Hi Kate: I'm always reading. Right now, I'm reading the newly released Lee Child "A wanted man". I've recently enjoyed: Linwood Barclay's "Never Look Away", Zoe Sharp's "Killer Instinct", Jonathan Moeller's "Child of the Ghosts" (fantasy), James Oswald's "Natural Causes" (which I feel is like Joel Goldman's Lou Mason meets the paranormal, set in scotland).
      For an interesting diversion, I read and enjoyed John Compton Sundman's "Cheap Complex Devices" — which is excellent and mind taxing.
      I also enjoy David Baldacci, Harlen Coben, Rick Mofina to name QUITE A FEW!

      As far as me, I'm writing a book of short stories, and the first book in a fantasy trilogy. I will be self-pubbing the shorts to see how that goes.
      Producing the works will take time as I have a day job, a family, and I also do a lot of drawings.

      thanks for the well wishes!

      Reply
    • Joel Goldman

      John Hancock – welcome to the world of the Indie writer! It's a great place to take advantage of your creative powers. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on my blog. Best of luck!

      Reply
    • Joel Goldman

      John Hancock – welcome to the world of the Indie writer! It's a great place to take advantage of your creative powers. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on my blog. Best of luck!

      Reply
  2. Giles Schumm

    I think it depends on the writer's skill – if s/he's good, whatever's in there – and to what degree of grisly or sexual – will be relevant to the plot. Some of the violence in David Peace's Red Riding books is really disturbing but he's writing about perverse and disturbing sex crimes and, in my opinion, he's a brilliant writer so I can – have to – endure it.. When sexual or violent passages are gratuitous they stick out clumsily and are only of use to 13 year old boys who daren't try to buy themselves a copy of Penthouse. I speak from experience!

    Reply
    • Kate Naylor

      No, surely you weren't that kind of thirteen year old boy, Mr Schumm! Then again I used to ransack my dad's pre-war encyclopedias for gory stuff, so I hold up my hands…

      Reply
    • Joel Goldman

      And I won't begin to tell you about the magazines my father's barber left lying around his shop, making going with my dad for a haircut a hair raising experience of another kind.

      Reply
    • Joel Goldman

      Hi Falcon,

      I’ll take a look at it, certainly. Thank you so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment. It is an interesting topic and I think one each author must consider individually based on the genre, his/her audience, and a number of other factors.

      Reply

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