Sex And Violence

March 13th, 2012 by Max Allan Collins

When I set out to write hardboiled mystery novels, very much influenced by Mickey Spillane and the Gold Medal writers, I made sure my work was strong on sex and violence. I still do. Not only are these ingredients key to the noir sensibility, they represent (as I’ve said numerous times) the big topics: life and death.

And while my historical novels have an element of education/information in them, the primary purpose is to entertain, and usually in the fashion that I established early on – meaning there will be sex and violence.

Over the years this has been commented on occasionally by reviewers, but not really that often – the subject tends to come up in a more general way, i.e., why is there so much sex and violence in noir fiction?

But in the past several years, I have been getting criticized much more often about the sexual component of the books. I don’t mean to defend myself here or to complain about those reviews – I am just observing that there seems to be something afoot in the culture, something more staid, even more prudish. I graduated high school in 1966, so the sexual revolution was all around me, reflected in popular culture from underground comix to nudity-flung films.

So what’s up lately with this anti-sex scene sentiment? And almost always coming from men. Men who don’t want to read about sex. Which strikes me as bewildering. These comments often come from readers who otherwise like the books. Here’s an excerpt from an Amazon Review of CARNAL HOURS that is otherwise a rave:

“The author seems determined to inject some short, steamy sex episodes in each book. These are gratuitous and serve no purpose other than to establish the ‘ladies man’ reputation of Heller, which could be accomplished without the silly detail. I’m not prudish but each time these short episodes struck me as stupid and juvenile.”

I might wonder why any reader of book with the word “carnal” in the title would be surprised to find sex scenes in that book. But this Amazon reviewer is joined by a handful of professional reviewers who have lately made similar comments. George Easter, for example, in the fine magazine Deadly Pleasures, made that his sole carp in a very positive review of BYE BYE, BABY.

Again, I mention this because I find it odd, not to complain about it or defend myself. I will say this: anyone who considers the sex scenes in Nathan Heller novels to be mere gratuitous porn isn’t really paying attention. I don’t believe there is a single Heller sex scene involving my guy with some casual pick-up in a bar or whatever – there are references to such happenings, but they remain off-stage. The sexual encounters are there for characterization reasons, usually to build emotion and establish a closeness, even a love, between Heller and a woman who is crucial to the tale being told, often tragic romances as in TRUE DETECTIVE, TRUE CRIME, THE MILLION-DOLLAR WOUND, FLYING BLIND and BYE BYE, BABY. Some of these are real women, like Amelia Earhart, Sally Rand and Evelyn MacClean Walsh, and this gets me nasty letters at times (“How dare you?”). I had death threats over my depiction of Earhart as bisexual. Here’s the thing: Nate Heller didn’t have sex with any of these women, because Nate Heller is a fictional character.

My sex scenes do make people uncomfortable at times, and I’m rather proud of that. A mystery writer pal of mine, when TRUE DETECTIVE came out, was offended (perhaps the term is “grossed out”) that Heller used condoms and he and the lady in question cleaned up after the act. The sex was too real, apparently. An editor talked me into toning down oral sex passages in ANGEL IN BLACK…between Heller and his wife (oral sex was both characterization and a major clue in that novel).

Anyway, if you guys out there want to skip the sex scenes, fine by me. My generation of guys would more likely have underlined them. If this is progress, count me out.

And isn’t it interesting that none of these reviewers have ever complained about the graphic blood-splattering violence in my work?

* * *

We had a very nice review for the upcoming Barbara Allan, ANTIQUES DISPOSAL, in Publisher’s Weekly.

Our good friend and that good writer Ron Fortier wrote a lovely review of ANTIQUES DISPOSAL on his fun Pulp Fiction web site.

Brandywine Books posted yet another fine Heller review, this time looking at TRUE DETECTIVE.

The low price ($2) this month of FLYING BLIND on Kindle e-book caught some nice attention here.

Perfect Crime Books has announced their Nolan reprint series, with all the covers posted.

The quirky and entertaining Temple of Schlock reviewed THE CONSUMMATA, and back on my birthday took an eccentric look at QUARRY’S EX.

Nate is heading to Japan for a month on a business vacation. He will still be handling the weekly Updates, but they will likely be a little shorter in the near future. Also, I’m working on ANTIQUES CHOP, which means you may be spared these longer entries until I am finished and Nate returns.


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6 Responses to “Sex And Violence”

  1. Perhaps the gentleman making reference to CARNAL HOURS doesn’t know the real meaning of the letters of the most popular word for the act. Then again, I often look at talk about such things and wonder myself. These things go in cycles I suppose. We’re of the same age group and based on the way things were going back in the sixties, in that arrogance of youth, I figured things would be wide open these days.

  2. Craig Clarke says:

    Some time between that generation and the next, the idea was spread that people who enjoy (or even don’t dislike) reading about sex are perverts. Therefore, today, it’s become the bold choice to not skip those scenes. Go figure.

  3. Edmond D. Smith says:

    I sort of doubt that the complaints about the sex scenes in the Heller series are due to any sort of prudishness but due instead to what I’ll call “sex-haustion”. Sex, porn, sex-talk, sex imagery in inappropriate places, sexualizing children, etc. has become so ubiquitous that finding it in Heller could be seen as tiresome and gratuitous. I don’t see it that way, mind you, but I think that reaction makes sense considering these times.

    I think it’s a shame actually because the sexual overkill has actually removed some of the fun of the idea of sex. When the likes of Miley Cyrus has become sexualized, sex is no longer “adult” or forbidden. We’ve reached the point of societal sexual overkill. If everything is “sexy” then nothing is and the whole damn topic becomes somewhat tiresome.

    I think sex scenes are perfectly appropriate in the Heller series. The problem is that we’re so used to seeing it everywhere, including places where it isn’t appropriate, that now even when we see it in places where it IS appropriate it is hard not to think, “Oh THAT, again. *YAWN*”. I don’t think your critics can be blamed for what might be seen as an odd reaction. I’d blame Miley, Lady Gaga, MTV and all the other boring, money hungry exhibitionists out in the zeitgeist.

  4. These are interesting comments and I appreciate them. Edmond raises a particularly interesting analysis, although I’m not sure I buy it. Even before the sexual revolution, sex sold things and sex symbols, including young ones (Annette and Lolita come to mind), were constant images. And while the internet is certainly making sexual imagery ubiquitous, popular culture since the 1920s and particularly post-PLAYBOY has been sex drenched. Personally I’m still not sex-hausted.

    My hunch is that these responses to the sex scenes in Heller (mostly current comments on books written some time ago) have more to do with political correctness — we’re not supposed to feel this way about sex or anyway write or read about sex in that fashion, because some people think it demeans women. Usually such complaints come from guys, not women, interestingly. Maybe these guys are getting indignant to get on the good side of their ladies. So they can get laid.

  5. I have to say this sounds like nothing more than old-fashioned prudery. Have these people ever seen a James Bond movie? Sex establishes character; it is a part of life. Just because it’s not likely that one man could bed Marilyn Monroe, Sally Rand, Amelia Earhart and Elizabeth Short (among other Heller conquests) doesn’t detract from the entertainment value of the books. It also doesn’t make them sexist or one-handed literature for that matter. Maybe these people find it necessary to dislike at least one element of anything they review. Louis

  6. Louis, you’re dead on — a lot of reviewers (both pro and amateur) seem to think their review isn’t finished until or unless they can come up with something negative, apparently to balance out whatever praise they’ve given.

    I do think this is prudery. As it happens, Barb and I just listened to CARNAL HOURS on audio (read very, very well by Dan John Miller) and the sex scenes all clearly designed to build, shape and enhance characterization. They’re pretty hot scenes, too, which for me is entertainment value. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, if you don’t like those sex scenes, you don’t like ice cream.

    Heller is often described (by me, sometimes) as “randy,” but CARNAL HOURS is a good example of him as a romantic. One of these days I will discuss the cominbation of true crime and melodrama I specialize in, and how the reality of the material has to be carefully intermingled with the classic PI melodrama that provides a window onto that true story.