Sex in Mysteries

Vicki Doudera here, getting ready to head to the “other” coast in a few weeks for Left Coast Crime in Sacramento, California. I’ll be moderating a panel, schmoozing with other writers, escaping mud season here in Maine, and hopefully selling copies of the third book in the Darby Farr Mystery series, the soon-to-be-released Deadly Offer.

Those of you who follow Darby’s exploits know she is a deal-making, crime-solving, real estate agent from a tiny island on the coast of Maine called Hurricane Harbor. At 17, she stole her aunt’s truck, took the ferry and careened across the country to Mission Beach, California. The first book in the series, A House to Die For, forced Darby back to Maine, and introduced a character who became her love interest, the British investigative journalist Miles Porter.

Darby and Miles have spent several books navigating the waters of early lust. In Killer Listing, second in the series, they made do with Skyping about their deepening feelings, because Miles was in Afghanistan reporting on the war. in Deadly Offer, Miles is once more stateside and by Darby’s side — at least for part of the book. She’s traveled to the lush vineyards of Northern California to help with the sale of a boutique winery, and between the murders, mayhem, and merlot, their romance begins to heat up. A little, anyway. Not quite a full boil, but a good simmer.

I just turned in the fourth book, Final Settlement. It takes place in the dead of a Maine winter, and now things between the two characters start to bubble away. I’m blushing as I type this, but that book contains my very first sex scene. One of my beta readers (okay, it was my husband) wrote in the margin of my MS: “Well done, honey, although a little short.”

He meant the length of the scene, I believe.

The truth is, those two pages of lovemaking were about all I could muster without writhing with embarrassment. Why is it I can write about a surgeon’s savage murder (A House to Die For) or detail a driven Realtor’s repeated stabbing (Killer Listing) without flinching a whit, and yet when it comes to describing a perfectly natural pastime that I myself have tried a few times, I squirm?

Mom. A Very Sweet Lady.

Is this the internal editor thing?The “oh-gosh-what-if-Mom-reads it” thing?    Or — am I, despite my worldly ways — really one of those dreaded “nice girls,” a.k.a., a prude?

Have any of you writers out there had difficulties getting your characters between the sheets?  Were you bashful at first and did it get easier? What about you guys? Is this just a girly problem? Readers of crime fiction, what do you think?

Here’s why I’m wondering. I’m currently reading a mystery that I picked off my sister-in-law in Portland’s shelf on the way to Mexico called Born in Death. It’s by JD Robb, a pen name for Nora Roberts, and I tell you what — that woman can write sex scenes. We are talking full rolling boil cascading over the sauce pan scenes. Scalding! Hot! Steamy! And, yes, I will admit it — enjoyable.

Which brings me back to Left Coast Crime. I see there is a panel that does not conflict with mine called Sex in Mysteries. You can bet yours truly will attend, and that I will be taking notes. Copious notes.

Even if I am blushing the whole darn time.

Me, looking flustered at the very thought...





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27 Responses to Sex in Mysteries

  1. Paul Doiron says:

    Good post, Vicki. I’ve gotten grief for including sex scenes in my books. One reader even sent me back the hardcover because she was so incensed that the editor of Down East magazine would write such sordid things! So I got a free book, in excellent condition.

    What I’ve argued is that it’s hypocritical of me to have a character who describes everything else in his life in great detail and then gets all coy and modest when his girlfriend shows up for a quickie. I think it’s troubling that crime authors write about horrifying violence with such vividness but treat sex as if it’s inevitably a shameful thing. It’s more than troubling: I think it’s bad for our society. “For the prosecution, your honor, I’d like to call Rush Limbaugh.”

    And sex scenes are such great opportunities for writers to establish characters in surprising ways and advance the plot. Sex can be loving or brutal, romantic or degrading, dull or passionate. Sometimes it’s many things at once.

    On the other hand, there are different expectations among the subgenres, and I guess I’m just as glad not to have read bedroom scenes starring Hercule Poirot.

    But I like sex and plan on continue to keep writing about it, especially if I receive more free books in the mail.

    • Hi Paul, thanks for your thoughts. I like your argument about hypocrisy, and I’m going to use it any books come back to me in the mail!

      I think some squeamish writers tend to draw the “romance” out for a very L O N G time, and while I did that for a few books (it is, after all, a tension builder) I put myself in my readers’ shoes (or bedroom slippers) and thought they’d waited long enough. Fish or cut bait, as we say here in Maine.

      Eww… it is tough to imagine Monsieur Poirot in a compromising position… or Miss Marple for that matter!

  2. Gerry Boyle says:

    First there was the mom factor. Then, even worse, the my-kids-will-be-reading-this factor. Now my three 20-somethings are my first readers so I guess I got over that. Of course, it’s natural for a fully drawn character to have fully (well, at least partially) full relationships, with all that entails. Still, the sex has to move the scene forward and not just be a steamy digression. And the longer the scene, the more chance there is of writing something laughable, which doesn’t do the book any good at all.
    So I go along, probably in my sex-scene comfort zone but still looking around the study to see if anyone’s looking when the characters are getting all hot and bothered. When I hesitate I remember an incident early on in my career. One of my neighbors in the sleepy village where I live is a woman then in her 60s. Very proper and also a mystery reader. She read my first couple of books and I winced at the thought of her encountering certain steamy passages. But then we met in the village and she gave me a brief but very favorable review. And added, “And you write a mean sex scene.”
    Do mystery writers blush? Oh, yes.

    • What a sweet story, Gerry! I can imagine your face reddening!

      I do like your point about very long sex scenes becoming somewhat ridiculous. I think JD Robb’s were two pages, but mine were probably more like two paragraphs, now that I really think about it! So.

      I am just now wondering if this has to do with my great aunt, with whom I spent a tremendous amount of time during my formative years, and who was an avid reader of “nice, clean, mysteries.”

  3. F. R. Pamp says:

    Lea Wait posted your piece on her Facebook page. (She’s an old high school buddy — she was editor of the school newspaper and I was an editor of the yearbook). My career as an author of murder mysteries is short (one unpublished ms.) but as a reader, I have a lot of experience, and my opinion is, sex can be pleasant but it is not necessary to a good read. Note that I have not sold my ms., and I have to admit that I am squeamish about writing sex scenes, perhaps because I don’t want to be put in a position where I have to blush. Tony Hillerman never included any sex, so it’s not required, right? Closest he ever got was a phone call received by Lt. Leaphorn, which revealed that Sgt Jim Chee had spent the previous night with a lady. I can get closer than that, but….

    • F.R. — thanks for raising the other side of the issue! Leave something to the imagination, right? It will be interesting to hear what writers out in CA have to say on this panel. I’ll report back in April with what I learn…

      You and Lea must have been one creative force at that high school!

  4. Great post, Vicki. The second short story I ever sold had a sex scene in it. I really enjoy writing romance, but have held way back in my mysteries so far, partly for the story arc and partly, I think, for the Mom factor. I’ve gotten them to the bedroom (or the couch – thinking of one of Julia’s books!) and then gently turned the page.

    But maybe I’ll start a romance series. When I retire to full-time writing, that is (five more years, five more years…).

  5. And do let us know what you learn from that panel!

    • Edith — I promise I’ll report back with a Sex in Mysteries, Part Deux.

      It’s interesting to think about what you’re saying regarding romance, because you do start to wonder if your blurring the genre lines!

  6. No blushes here, since I was published in category romance (Silhouette Intimate Moments, Loveswept, etc) before I was published in mystery (other than for kids). It’s easier to learn to write love (not sex) scenes when the whole point of the story is the build-up of sexual tension. And in well-written romance novels there is usually more than sex going on in these scenes, like relationship-building, character development, or plot advancement. Otherwise they’re dead boring to write. I always liked to include a bit of humor, too. When I started writing mystery series, however, I made a conscious decision not to include details of my characters sex lives. In a cozy, I don’t think it’s necessary and many readers say they just skip over the “sex scenes” anyway. So, although I think we can assume Liss MacCrimmon is a healthy young woman in her late twenties, the most my readers ever see on the page is a kiss.

  7. I hear you. I find I close the door a lot for my characters, and find lots of cute ways to evade stating the obvious. I have yet to get down to body parts.

    I was on a panel at Bouchercon last year on Sex in Mysteries as the lonely cozy representative–I think everyone else (the panel included Heather Graham and Harley Jane Kozak) had a romance background. But hey, our cozy characters are human, aren’t they? If they’re completely sexless they won’t be believable.

  8. Great post! This is something I had to deal with in my last book. In my first four that were in a series, there was romantic tension, but all real sex took place during those blank spaces that equate the passage of time. My female protagonist in this new thriller is scarred from an injury she got while in the military. It was an important part of her character to have the love interest accept her body. When I went to write this love scene, I discovered I didn’t even know what sort of language to use. Although I have read several J.D. Robb books, I hadn’t read enough sex scenes to feel comfortable. So, here’s what I did. Thank goodness for ebooks. I downloaded several ebooks by authors I knew wrote steamy sex scenes – Barry Eisler, Stuart Woods, Nora Roberts, and several others. I searched in the books under the term “breast.” Bam! It took me straight to the sex scenes every time. I read them and studied them until I didn’t feel embarrassed by the language. When I wrote my own scene I didn’t feel self conscious about it at all anymore, and the language had become my own.

    • Christine, what a great technique. Searching for a key word was a terrific idea, and you’re right — the more you get comfortable with something, the less it bothers you. (Which is why I’m not a fan of ultra violent video games.)

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting! Good luck with the new thriller.

  9. MCWriTers says:

    Ah, nothing brings out the comments like sex, does it? When my boys were young, they asked if they could read some of my books. My 13-year-old handed the book back and said, “sorry, mom, no 13-year-old boy can read a book written by his mother that has sex in it.”

    When I was still in the unpublished writer’s corner, my mother was taking care of the boys and she read my manuscript. When she admitted what she’d done, I said, “So, mom…did you like it?” “Oh, yes, but Katie Ellen, the sex…how did you know?” I said: “Great imagination, mom” and rewrote the book.

    My neighbor who is a few years older gave one of my books to her mother. Her mother read and enjoyed the book, but seemed a little dubious about my neighbor reading it. “You know,” her mother said, “I wondered about you girls reading books with sex in them.”

    I think my books are demure. Go figure.


    • Your mom was so cool, I can’t imagine her flinching about ANYTHING. But I guess it was hard for her to accept that YOU knew about the birds and the bees…

  10. Carol-Lynn Rössel says:

    Hi Vicki.
    I’ve been reading these comments with interest, because I just have zero interest in reading about sex in mystery stories. Today I was down at the Apple Store at the Maine Mall having files migrated via time machine to my new Mac and it was taking hours, so I started reading a cozy on my iPad, one I’m glad I downloaded gratis. The first chapter, even, had too much salacious stuff for me. I got to chapter four and thought: boy, I won’t read any more of that person’s books. For me, these sly asides are such an unnecessary distraction. I’m just not interested in people’s love lives. Slows down the pace and bores me to death. Takes me right out of the mood. My reaction is always: “Who cares?” But, then, I consider romance a mental aberration, anyhow, so I’m probably an atypical reader. I like the closed doors after the lights go off approach.

    • Carol-Lynn, I don’t think your reaction is atypical, because what I think you’re saying is that the sex in that downloaded cozy slowed down the action, and nothing should do that.

      I’m a “sex-in-my-mystery virgin” as I confessed, but it seems from all these excellent comments that the best sex scenes continue to move the story forward, not drag it out.

  11. Earl Staggs says:

    I don’t need an author to describe the act of making love to me. Hey! Been there, done that a few times. If somewhere during the sex act there was forward movement in plot or characterization, okay, but I’ve yet to see it happen. Those things can happen, however, during foreplay and in the afterglow and I’ve seen that done quite well.

  12. I write short story cozy mysteries. My stories don’t contain sex, but if an author chooses to write their stories/novels with sex, that’s ok with me!

  13. The tastes of readers sure do vary wildly on this (very subjective) issue. A recent reader was annoyed with Camp Follower, the third book in my historical crime fiction series, because it contained sexual tension, and she pronounced it a historical romance, not historical suspense or mystery. OTOH the book was nominated for the Daphne du Maurier Award on the merits of its characterizations and suspenseful plotting, but ironically it didn’t win because the judges decided that it wasn’t a romance.

  14. Dru says:

    A love scene/sex scene should not over take a mystery, but if it moves the story along then it’s a perfect pairing.Alluding to the act is good as I don’t need the graphic details in a mystery that I’m reading.

    • Dru, I think your two sentences encapsulate the whole issue. The thing I still find interesting is why these scenes are harder to write. I mean, why should violence be comparatively easy to describe?

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