The characters in my new psychological thriller, THE NEIGHBOR, drink a lot. And I mean a lot. How much drinking is too much in a novel? Is it a case that you’ll know it when you see it. The same goes with sex in a crime novel. Can there be too much of it?
When it comes to pushing boundaries, the writer of crime fiction must be weary of going too far. Gratuitous sex or violence can often take away from the plot and leave a bad taste in the reader’s mouth. Considering that the majority of readers are women, finding this line can be tricky.
John Cheever and John Updike featured many alcoholics in their stories, as did Raymond Carver. Their books were primarily literary fiction and so they could get away with it. Stieg Larson had many graphic scenes in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, but I felt it worked in the context of his plot. Graphic sexual content also depends on the novel’s genre. It worked in FIFTY SHADES OF GREY because the book fell into the category of erotic romance. Women accepted the sexuality in this book because the main characters loved one another—meaning the sex was not gratuitous.
Are there lines in crime writing that cannot be crossed? I suppose that’s up to the individual reader, but for me, as a writer, there are definitely lines that can’t be crossed. Rape and pedophile are two examples. I remember reading a book once that rather abruptly included one of these scenes. It offended and repelled me as a reader and I couldn’t finish it. Maybe there are writers who could pull this off, but I would never include graphic scenes of these kinds of acts. I think a writer can allude to it in their fiction, because this after all is a reality of criminal enterprises, and the crux of man crime stories, but they should never detail the acts.
Otherwise, I encourage writers to push boundaries. Gratuitous of anything for the sake of shock value always plays second fiddle to emotional profundity. Yes, people are alcoholics, but showing too much of it will turn people off.
Now let me leave with you with some levity. Here’s an excerpt from a finalist for the 2017 Bad Sex Writing award.
The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet
He puts his hands on Bianca’s shoulders and slips off her low-cut top. Suddenly inspired, he whispers into her ear, as if to himself: ‘I desire the landscape that is enveloped in this woman, a landscape I do not know but that I can feel, and until I have unfolded that landscape, I will not be happy …’
Bianca shivers with pleasure. Simon whispers to her with an authority that he has never felt before: ‘Let’s construct an assemblage.’