I Want to Break Free*

ExplicitnessAs society has changed, so have the social constraints on the way crime writers tell their stories. On the one hand, there are certain ‘isms’ that are considered offensive by today’s standards, but that didn’t restrict crime writers from the classic and Golden Ages. So as we look at novels from those eras, we see references that today’s authors would probably hesitate before making, if they made them at all. On the other hand, there are many fewer social constraints on explicitness in today’s world. So today’s crime writers are under less social pressure to ‘tone it down.’ Of course, sub-genre often plays a role in how much explicitness there is in modern novels (e.g. Cosy mysteries are generally very low on violence and aren’t graphic about sex either). So does the author’s/publisher’s vision of what serves the story. But in a very general sense, today’s writers aren’t obliged to refrain from sex scenes and violence the way their predecessors were.

A fascinating post by Moira at Clothes in Books has given me, as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot would say, furiously to think about this issue. Moira’s post raised the question of whether authors of other eras would include sex scenes in their stories if the social mores of the day had allowed it. The answer, as you can imagine, depends on the author. But it got me to thinking about what crime writers of other eras might have written if those social mores had permitted it. Like Moira, I can only speculate. But here are a few of my thoughts (with which of course, feel free to differ if you do).

It’s said that Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes as a response to then-contemporary fictional detectives who solved crime through intuition and whose successes depended a lot on coincidence and serendipity. His Holmes solved crimes through reason, logic, and scientific principles. And as Holmes fans will know, that approach serves him well. Certainly the stories acknowledge the allure of sex; for instance in A Scandal in Bohemia, there’s a more or less direct acknowledgement that the King of Bohemia had an intimate relationship with actress Irene Adler. The stories acknowledge violence too. But honestly, I doubt whether either of those two elements would be detailed explicitly were Conan Doyle not constrained by the social ‘rules’ of his day. Holmes’ passion is the solution of problems. He is far more interested in the intellectual exercise of finding out the truth of a case than he is in much of anything else. Of course there are stories in which he shows compassion and recognises the human side if you will of a case. But that’s not his focus and I don’t think it was Conan Doyle’s.

What’s interesting about Agatha Christie when it comes to this question is that she wrote until 1973, by which time there were fewer social constraints on explicitness in novels. And yet, she basically refrained from it. There are of course mentions of sex in her novels. For instance in Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), Hermione ‘Egg’ Lytton Gore is discussing famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright, with whom she’s smitten. She mentions that she ‘likes men to have affairs,’ and she describes one actress as having ‘masses of S.A. (sex appeal).’ There are also mentions of the violence involved in the murders Christie describes. And yet, she didn’t write bedroom scenes and didn’t describe violence in explicit detail. By the end of her career, doing so was no longer as socially unacceptable, but her writing was always focused more on plot than on character development or side issues. It’s hard to tell of course whether she refrained from explicitness because of personal taste, the mores of her childhood or her choice to focus on plot. While it’s probably some sort of combination of factors, my guess is it’s more the latter than anything else.

One of Agatha Christie’s contemporaries was of course Dorothy Sayers. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels feature character development more than Christie’s do. She also traces the love affair between Wimsey and mystery novelist Harriet Vane over a story arc in a way that Christie chose not to do. But I’m not sure that she would have included sex scenes or for the matter of that, explicit violence if she were writing today. The love she describes in her novels is, if I can put it this way, more romantic love than love as it’s expressed through sex. For instance, at the end of Gaudy Night, when Harriet Vane finally agrees to marry Lord Peter Wimsey, it’s a romantic moment, not a sexual one. Sex is implied in Strong Poison, where we first meet Harriet Vane. She’s accused in that novel of poisoning her former lover Philip Boyes, with whom she lived without being married to him. But no direct references are made to their intimate moments, and no bedroom scenes are described. It’s just my guess (so again, do disagree with me if you feel so moved), but Sayers probably wouldn’t change that aspect of her writing if she were writing today. Her background was a strongly religious one, and she often wrote from that perspective. That perspective might very well mean she’d exercise restraint, even today.

The ‘Queen Team’ of cousins Daniel Nathan and Manford Lepofsky introduced Ellery Queen in 1929’s The Roman Hat Mystery. In the first novels in that series the focus is just about entirely on the intellectual mystery involved. As the series goes on, though, we see the gradual evolution of Queen’s character and more attention paid to other characters as well. For example, 1942’s Calamity Town features a strong focus on the members of the Wright family and the character of Jim Haight, who marries one of the Wright daughters Nora. When Haight’s sister Rosemary comes for a visit and dies of poisoning, he is the most likely suspect for a number of reasons. There are of course a lot of whodunit elements in this mystery, but there’s also character development. And there certainly is in 1951’s The Origin of Evil, in which Queen solves the mystery of some baffling and macabre ‘gifts’ given to jewel dealers Leander Hill and Roger Priam. And that novel hints quite a bit at sexual intrigue. For instance, Priam’s wife Delia is a very attractive woman who may (or may not) be open to seducing Queen. Other later Queen novels have a similar kind of innuendo in them. If the ‘Queen Team’ were writing today, it’s quite possible that they’d have included more than innuendo. Especially the later novels acknowledge the role that sex plays in a lot of crime and, free of the then-current mores about it, these authors might very well have been more detailed.

Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte novels often feature Bony’s ability to understand what nature is telling him. He solves crimes by making sense of clues he sees in his surroundings, among other things. And yet, Upfield didn’t ignore character development by any means. In novels such as The Bone is Pointed, Death of a Swagman and The Bushman Who Came Back, we see how the interactions among the characters have led to violence. And Bony pays attention to those interactions. So these novels are as much character-driven in their way as they are plot-driven. The reasons for murders sometimes have to do with love and sex too, too, so Upfield does acknowledge the role that sex can play in crime. And yet, he was, as Browne puts it, ‘something of an old-fashioned moralist.’ In fact, here’s what Upfield himself said:


‘There are only two subjects to write about – crime and sex. A good clean murder, no matter how badly written, is better than a sordid seduction, no matter how well written. That’s my view and I don’t imagine I’ll ever change it.’


I’m not sure he would either. If not, it’s not likely he would write explicit scenes, even given today’s mores about them.

There are of course dozens of authors I haven’t mentioned. That’s how it is when you have the space of only one post. So I’m sure I’ve missed out authors whose work you enjoy. What do you think?  Would authors such as Ngaio Marsh or Edmund Crispin write explicit scenes? What about others whose work you know?

Thanks, Moira, for the ‘food for thought.’  Folks, do please visit Moira’s terrific blog. It’s a rich resource for discussions of fashion, social attitudes and customs in all kinds of literature.



*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Queen, written by John Deacon.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Dorothy Sayers, Edmund Crispin, Ellery Queen, Ngaio Marsh

24 responses to “I Want to Break Free*

  1. Perhaps I’m revealing my own prejudices here, Margot, but I believe that many writers of the Golden Age and beyond would not have gone heavily into explicit sex and violence if still writing today – at least not those writing in the classic tradition, where the puzzle and plot were at least as important as other factors. But it’s worth noting that authors such as Crispin and Marsh did not necessarily shy away from violence in their stories – there are some really horrifying moments and passages in both those authors’ works. Remember that Marsh’s last novel, “Light Thickens,” didn’t appear until 1982 – and that one featured a beheading, as I recall. But neither Marsh nor Crispin dealt with graphic sex, although off-stage sexuality certain played a role in both authors’ books. As I say, that suits my own tastes – I simply don’t enjoy hard-care noir or hard-boiled.

    • Les – I think you’re probably quite right about most of the GA writers. As you say, they don’t shy away from innuendo or mentions of violence, but I think most of them wouldn’t include a lot of sex scenes or graphic violence. And I think you’ve hit on an important reason why. In the classic detective novel, the emphasis is one the mystery. The intricacies of plot take are therefore a lot more important than are some of the other aspects of a novel. If that’s one’s priority, than one isn’t likely to take a lot of time writing sex scenes.

  2. Another fascinating post, Margot, that does merit furious thinking.

    On yhe subject of Agatha Christie, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of more sexually explicit content, had she been born in another era. My suspicions come not from my reading of her fiction but her autobiography. On the one hand, there was her marriage to Archie Christie; I believe Agatha was genuinely in love with him, hence the way she fell apart when he had an affair and subsequently left her (her mysterious ‘disappearance’ has been linked linked to her depression at the time). Then there was the courtship between her and her second husband, Max Mallowan, who was some 14 years her junior. There’s a memorable scene in the autobiography when Agatha and Max come across a lake in the desert and she strips down to her knickers and ‘double camisoles’ so they can swim together. I suspect that beneath those straight laces beat the heart of a tiger!

    Of the modern cosy writers, I think Kerry Greenwood does a great job in her Phryne Fisher series of upping the ante on the sex and violence, but with restraint. A colleague of mine refers to these novels as ‘cosies with teeth’. Think fluffy animals with fangs!

    • Angela,
      Thanks for the kind words. And thanks very much for your thoughts on Agatha Christie. You’re quite right that in her personal life, she wasn’t as restrained, let’s just say, as she was in her writing. I’ve always rather liked about her that she was so resilient and basically forged her own path. In an era when a lot of women wouldn’t have dared, she was quite the trend-breaker. And who knows? She might indeed have let that into her writing. It’s so much fun to speculate isn’t it?
      And about Kerry Greenwood, I’m a fan of her work as well. I like Phryne Fisher and I like Corinna Chapman too. And in both series, you’re right; there’s an upping of the ante when it comes to sex and sometimes violence, but with restraint. Certainly Greenwood doesn’t add in those elements gratuitously. But they do move her novels out of the traditional ‘cosy’ category. I’ve heard them called ‘cosy with an edge,’ and there’s sense in that.

  3. Personally I’d rather read neither explicit sex or violence, on the whole, and like to think the golden oldies along with a lot of modern writers knew/know how to write a story and get their meaning across without the need to be graphic. If either sex or violence is essential to the story, fine, but so often it’s just in there as padding – and sex scenes especially tend to be so badly written…in my opinion, of course. And could I please add excessive swearing to the list? It may add to the realism but adds nothing to the literary merit. There – I think I win today’s Old Fogey award… 😉

    • FictionFan – You are welcome to add excessive swearing to the list. I couldn’t agree more that it’s quite possible to tell a spellbinding story that keeps readers wanting more without resorting to the use of every salty word in the dictionary. That doesn’t make you an old fogey at all, unless I’m one too. And we know that could never be. 😉
      As to sex and violence, I think you have a well-taken point. Even if sex scenes are essential to plots, they’re often written badly and end up being more boring than anything else. And very often as you say, scenes like that are ‘fillers’ rather than actual plot threads.

  4. Margot: I do not find it possible to take authors out of the era in which they lived and predict what they would have done in present times. Whatever we consider their personalities, interests, life styles and attitudes to be they were shaped by the periods in which they lived and wrote. To say what they would do in this era applies the views of today to people who did not grow up with the same influences.

    Rex Stout wrote mysteries with Nero Wolfe for over 40 years. Nero never aged though the mysteries deal with the contemporary issues of two generations. Because Stout was born in the 19th Century I do not see him writing differently in the 21st Century.

    • Bill – Now that is a compelling point. We are all products of the eras in which we live and work, and the mindsets and views of those times have profound influences on us. That mindset is woven into our ways of looking at the world. Little wonder Stout Stout didn’t age Nero Wolfe over the years.

  5. Col

    Interesting – I suppose if I wanted to read sex I’d be looking at a different category of books for my entertainment. I’m no prude, if the books justifies a sex scene, however I’m happy enough reading it. It adds a different dimension to the novel I suppose.
    I think I would be bored if I read prim and chaste GA books all the time. I’m probably a product of my generation as much as the authors mentioned were products of theirs.

    • Col – Interesting point. As readers, we are also affected by the mindsets and so on of the eras in which we live. So we have certain expectations and preferences based on that.
      You make a well-taken point too about a sex scene serving the plot of a novel. If it does, a lot of people don’t mind having it there. But if it doesn’t, there’s no reason for it – especially if it’s not well written.

  6. Ms. Kinberg, this is an interesting debate and my fellow commentators have only enriched it. I’m not sure I’d be comfortable reading about sex scenes in a Doyle or Christie story. I don’t think it’d occur to anyone who reads their books. On the other hand, I’ve often wondered why Perry Mason and Della Street don’t take their “date” beyond the customary dinner after the success of a case. Then again, Gardner’s novels would probably have lost much of their charm if they, indeed, had. After all, we know they are in love. On a related note, I’ve read several modern suspense and thriller writers who steer clear of sex and instead stay focused on the plot. I think it’s a conscious decision by the authors.

    • Prashant – Thanks for the kind words. I always learn so very much from you folks who comment on my blog. You have some interesting points about the Perry Mason/Della Street relationship. On the one hand, it would have been natural for them to have a physical relationship. On the other, it adds much to the series that they keep their relationship a ‘family viewing’ one. That allows more of the focus of the book to be on the plot itself. That said though, it’s interesting to speculate what Gardner would do were he writing today.
      You’re right too that there are lots of modern writers who choose not to write sex scenes. If the novel is well-written and draws the reader in, that’s all that matters.

  7. Thanks for the shoutout Margot, and it’s always an honour to inspire one of your wonderful blogposts. Christie I think was quite sexy in real life, and might have moved with the times, and had a little more in the way of sex scenes, but not to excess. But I think because she liked the puzzle and moving the plot on too much, wouldn’t waste time with sex. But one of my favourite lines comes in Mrs McGinty’s Dead, referring to a woman who killed her husband: ‘His peculiar practices [were] referred to in such a guarded way at to rouse instant curiosity.’ That’s so true to life, so realistic.

    • Moira – Oh, it is indeed! I really do like that quote. And it’s always an honour and a pleasure to mention your excellent blog. As to Christie, I don’t think she would have shocked at all by modern novels, and maybe she would have added more in the way of sex scenes. But honestly, I think she was so focused on the plot – the puzzle involved – that she probably wouldn’t have changed her style dramatically.

  8. There is a hint of sex in Sayers in ‘Busman’s Holiday’ after the first night of Peter and Harriet’s honeymoon. The suggestion is that Harriet’s former lover was a brute! It is *very* subtly done!

    • Sarah – Right you are indeed. The alert reader catches the reference, but it’s nearly ‘under the radar.’ I don’t know how obvious Sayers would have been about the matter were she living and writing in today’s social climate. I have the feeling she still would have used that delicate subtlety.

  9. Wonderful piece Margot and I thoroughly enjoyed all the comments too. I find too much sex and violence off-putting and tend to skip through those pages to get back to the ‘real’ story. I am not a fan of swearing and that is why when I had to include some in one of my stories recently I hated to do it but it was necessary….the odd curse I don’t mind but explicit language makes my toes curl and does nothing for me if it is not in character and is to shock. I am beyond shocking but just sigh deeply when I read the ins and outs of the bedroom. Movies like this bore me stupid too. I think Agatha probably had enough sex going on in her own life from what I’ve read without including it in her work. Plus that era was one of double standards in a lot of things and much went on behind ‘closed doors,’ and scandal was swept ‘under the carpet,’ so it would not have been well received and in the UK we had censorship to contend with at some point…Lady Chatterley etc. I think plot, the chase for the solution and the justice delivered meant more to her readers than having it all served up in front of them. Imagination of the reader makes a book work so much better; better even than the writer intends sometimes.

    • Jane – Thanks very much. You make such strong arguments here. You’re absolutely right that plots are almost never well-served by having plot points put in purely for shock value. It actually ends up (in my opinion) having the opposite effect, so that a book like that gets terribly boring after a short time. Who needs that?
      You also make a very well-taken point about setting the reader free to use her or his own imagination. As you point out, imagination is an absolutely wonderful tool, and when readers get the chance to use it, the story as all hte more powerful I think.
      As to Agatha Christie, perhaps you’re right that she wouldn’t have felt a real compulsion to write explicitly about sex. Her own life was spicy enough as I’ve also heard, and besides, she was interested in plot. Perhaps she’d have been more forthright than she was if the standards of the day had allowed for it, but I’m not sure she would really have changed her focus dramatically.

      • Agreed Margot. I think she would have also been of her class and time and I think she found what worked for her so why ruin things. I imagine that a lot of ‘respectable,’ ladies and spinsters read her work avariciously and would not have wanted to be seen reading her work if too ‘naughty,’ and not deemed to be ladylike. I think I am right in thinking that it’s still mainly women who devour crime and mysteries and thrillers. We had Christie on our school reading list, I cannot think they would have lasted if too naughty though we did read Peyton Place and A Taste of Honey and The Girl with Green Eyes; too, too risky by far really. LOL

        • Jane – Oh, you did have quite an array of books on your list! You make an interesting point too about how the mores of the day affect the book choices people made. Well, Christie was nothing if not shrewd, so I’m sure it didn’t escape her that she’d have a bigger audience if she wrote books people were willing to be seen reading. Good point.

        • I can only think so because of the way things were back then and knowing what those nearest to me were like when choosing their reading matter back then. Church still rules the roost for many and so many conventions to observe and uphold. LOL

  10. Margot – another great post. I seem to be with the majority of commentators who don’t care for sex scenes in mysteries. I’d up the ante further and say I don’t really like romance in mysteries if it doesn’t further the plot or show insight into character. In my opinion the best sex scenes in fiction are the humorous ones, and one of my favorites occurs in Stuart Kaminsky’s Bullet for a Star.

    • Bryan – Thank you. And I’m glad you’ve mentioned Kaminsky. His work has a solid wit to it; I must spotlight one of his novels. I’m remiss in not having done that yet. And I agree about both sex scenes and romance. In fact, the real question needs to be, ‘Does this serve the story?’ If it doesn’t, it can easily take away from it.

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