As 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.