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?