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September 25, 2006

Sex at Work

By Michele Martinez

I recently mentioned to a friend in publishing that I was planning to go to Bouchercon, and she told me this story.  When she was a naive little thing just starting out in the biz, she was thrilled to be asked to represent her big publishing house at BEA.  BEA is one of the most prestigious events in the industry, and this was her chance to shine.  So she gathered her courage and marched in to ask her notoriously intimidating female boss how best to prepare for such an important assignment.  The boss pondered for a moment, then uttered these words of wisdom: 

"Buy new underwear." 

My friend's story suggests that the book biz is just as rife with office romance and scandal as any other field, including my previous chosen profession, the law.  The law?, you ask skeptically.  That province of dry old statute books and arcane judicial opinions?  But I wasn't just a lawyer; I was in law enforcement.  When you mix prosecutors and federal agents and danger and stress and guns, you end up with some interesting situations and plenty of salacious gossip.

To give you an idea of the overheated atmosphere, the most popular drinking game in the U.S. Attorney's Office when I was there was called "Who Would You Rather Do?"  Sometimes the game was played for laughs, as in "Who would you rather do -- Judge X (vile!) or Judge Y (ick!)?"  But sometimes it was played in all seriousness, with real-life consequences.  At least one attractive female prosecutor ended up marrying the male prosecutor whose name topped her "do" list.  He'd heard about it; he was flattered; she was on his list, too, and the rest is history.

Now, this post is really about writing (at least, if you've read this far), and here's how.  A vocal minority of readers out there think that crime novels should be about crime alone, that there's no place in them for romance, and certainly no place for explicit sex scenes.  I thought about those readers recently when I wrote a pivotal scene in the next Melanie Vargas book, Cover-Up (coming March 2007).  In the middle of a dangerous and difficult murder investigation, Melanie and her heartthrob, FBI Agent Dan O'Reilly, do it in the office.  On her desk, to be exact.  This happens at a moment when Melanie's career is on the line, and even though it's a stupid and risky thing to do, it's also very human.  I believe in that scene, but I know I'll also get complaints about it.  When I do, I'll take comfort in the great sex and office romance scenes in crime fiction.  (To me, the best legal thriller ever written is still the one that started the whole craze -- Presumed Innocent  by Scott Turow

and that book is about nothing so much as an office affair with deadly consequences.)

So, a couple of questions to go with your coffee on this Monday morning. (1) Do you like sex in crime novels?  (2)  If so, what's your favorite sex scene in crime fiction? 

And the next time you're sitting in a bar at a convention at a loss for words or bored with the chit chat, you have my permission to pull out that old U.S. Attorney's Office standard and ask your companion, "Who would you rather do?"



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Great to see you here, Michele!

There is actually a game and accompanying book called "Who Would You Do?" Some friends and I played it several years ago, and it had disturbing questions like: "Barry Gibb, Barry Manilow, or Barry White?" and "Jennings, Brokaw or Rather?"

To your questions:

1. Yes
2. Tough question, although Melanie and Dan in the hotel room is right up there. I'm not sure I read much crime fiction - does that include all mysteries, or just the grittier ones?

Gotta start the school shuttle service - I'll be back later once I've had sufficient caffiene!

Gee...female lawyers are that easy to pick up? BARTENDER?????
Opps, I forgot - my M.S. degree does not equal the J.D. degree or a house on the intercoastal.

First: Yes,as long as it doesn't take over the plot. Crime is crime after all, but sexual tension is a great addition, especially when it might compromise some aspect of the investigation and give the protagonist a moment of angst or two.( Can you tell, I like my characters flawed)

As far as favorite sex scene...that's a toughie. Barry Eisler does a couple of remarkably well done (and steamy...oh baby)
ones in his fourth John Rain book. Kathleen Woodeweiss maybe, especially in Ashes in the Wind.

Who would I "do"? Mark Harmon in a New York minute...and Chris Meloni from CSI SVU.

Happy Monday!

Ahhh. What a dangerous game you feds play. I mean, aren't there rules about not dissing judges, etc....Hah!
Michele, I think you hit on the key word - risk. Risk is what ups the tension. We learn about characters when they take risks. We learn about who they are, how big their egos are and their fears. Fun, fun, fun.
Also, sex is fun, so why not?
And don't let those nanny goats intimidate you about no sex in books. As one bookseller confided to me, it's the ones who complain who secretly crave it the most.
Again, another excellent post. Thanks!

If the PC police were here, they'd say we were due for an arrest. Yet this topic is so---as you say, Michele---human! So I pick Tom Brokaw. On the other hand, maybe Dan has the kinkier side, and . . . oh, nevermind.

Great to have you showing up on Mondays here, babycakes!

Good morning, all, it's great to be back here!

I love the sound of that board game, Kathy, but the "Barry" question is a killer. Wow, tough choice. The "played for laughs" ones are always the hardest. Here's another one: Bush, Rumsfeld or Cheney?

And, Nancy, we can't be *that* politically incorrect. Just recently I saw a thread on DorothyL that asked which hero of crime fiction you'd rather do. Okay, maybe they didn't phrase it like that, but that was the gist. If I recall correctly, I think the protag with the most mentions was Inspector Lynley.

Go, Michele, go.
I, for one, have always wanted to do it on a desk.
And doing it with Inspector Lynley on a desk would be really nice. But Bush/Rumsfeld/Cheney? There are times when even a writer's imagination fails . . .

Bush, Rumsfeld, or Cheney?? How about "None of the above" as an answer to that?

Sexual tension is one thing , fear and relief are another. When normal people outside of books go through horrible tense situations and make it through, the one thing they seem to need to do is letting themselves know they are ALIVE! The way to do this is to connect with another human being. Therefore, sexual contact in crime novels are appropriate. Not every other page but at certain times when it makes sense. I know many police officers that either have great family lives or get into a lot of trouble right after going through shooting situations. Human nature! SusanCo

Ooops...that should be Chris Meloni from Law & Order SVU...too many crime shows too little time:o)

As Maryann said, I like flawed characters, too. Sex in books is like anything else: must be meaningful to the story.

As for Bush, Rumsfeld, or Cheney? Ew. I may not eat for a week. (Come to think of it, I could lose a few. I'm calling this the "Who'd you do?" diet.)

You know, I think Turow is a great example of taking it too far. Not so much the sex scenes themselves, but the focus on sexual issues.

I thought Presumed Innocent was a masterpiece - still the best courtroom writing I've ever read.

But his third and fourth books were not as good. One reason? Too much sexual focus. I mean, one had V.D. as a central plot point. That goes too far for me, even though I'm sure it happens in real life.

We all know that sex sells, but in a book, like everything else, it needs to add to or further the plot, otherwise, it makes for a choppy read.

This is such a interesting topic in the mystery business these days - it's the old 'Bedroom Door: open or closed?' debate.

Michele - cannot wait for Cover-Up - it'll be a bright spot in a usually dreary month.

Oh, and I'm going with None of the Above. Would poison be an option?

P.S. Oh, and about the choices in TV news guys, may I call CNN's Alessio Vinci? Please?

Rebecca is right, this *is* a big topic in the mystery biz these days. I know which side I come down on.

For me it's not about selling books or being voyeuristic so much as it about getting the atmosphere of law enforcement right. This is a field full of people who live on the edge and take big risks. There's a lot of adrenaline, and it gets expressed in heightened tension and a "let it all hang out" attitude. I remember the shock of going from a buttoned down, white shoe NYC law firm to the U.S. Attorney's Office. The resumes of the lawyers in those two places might have looked identical but the attitudes could not have been more different.

There was a perfect example of what I'm talking about in the first season of The Wire. The seasoned female prosecutor and the bitter, jaded cop (who've been sleeping together though he's married) have just made a huge breakthrough in an investigation of a dangerous kingpin. They're in a parking garage after leaving court, and they're both just so excited and so relieved about the turnaround in their case that they end up practically doing it on the hood of the car. To me, that said something true about law enforcement, and you did really hear gossip about people getting involved in the pressure of those types of investigations or trials.

Hard to imagine two lawyers behaving like that after coming from a status conference in some big anti-trust lawsuit. Crime is just different.

I hear you that crime is different - expecially when you ratchet up the rush, sex becomes a natural human response.

But some of it is just that humans are sexual beings. I never did criminal law, but I've actually had sex on a desk in a law office - with my boss. That was nearly 20 years ago, and we ended up married. Some of it was the tension of trying to keep the relationship a secret at the beginning (pesky no-fraternization policies)but most of it was that we were madly attracted to eachother.

I understand why some books don't have sex in them, but that doesn't mean the characters aren't having sex somewhere - because that's what men and women do.

Sex? I'm fer it.

Sorry, Kathy, didn't mean to suggest that civil lawyers don't do it on the desk too!

You raise an interesting point about how characters may be having sex in moments that the reader doesn't get to see. That issue comes up with eating and sleeping, too. What choice does the author make about whether to include these activities? I put in meals and rest in my books, but some authors don't. Sometimes it's really effective *not* to. Like, the fact that Jack Reacher never seems to sleep or change his clothes in Lee Child's books contributes to the sense of urgency in the plot.

On the other hand, I've seen really effective use made of bodily functions that you don't normally see (or want to see) in fiction. Vomiting when you find the corpse is sort of a cliche. But Grisham does amazing things in "A Time To Kill" with the protagonist's stomach upset on the eve of the big trial. That's a brilliant stroke of realism to my mind.

Thanks for sharing the desktop incident, Kathy...We know where you stand on sex in books! How 'bout the infamous sex with ducks passage or was it chickens? Was that in a mystery or a crime novel? I don't read many crime novels myself - when I started reading the blog today, the movie "Body Heat" kept coming to mind...

Michele - good point - Lawrence Saunders' Deadly Sins series made great use of food - wasn't his cop always making sandwiches or something? Spoke to his love of detail and need for control in the midst of the chaos of murder, plus they always sounded like they tasted good.

I thought A Time To Kill was far and away Grisham's best, even though the first chapter was tough sledding.

Beachfla - that was an early Evanovich, where reference was made to the sleazy cousin's habits - really, it doesn't get much sleazier than that!

Good to see you here. Boy, this is a hot button. In Marcia Muller's 24 book series featuring PI Sharon McCone, about midway, she shoots and kills someone "in the line of duty". It so shakes her head that her job requires this former peace and love investigator for All Souls Legal Clinic to kill--------------she runs off to the hills and has sex with the first man she meets-----more or less. Now I have always thought that was a risky but totsally normal response to an experience that rocks your women's world! The character of Sharon changes, ages, grows and the series keeps that edge until today.

Mary Alice.....livin and lovin in Pittsburgh

Thanks, Mary Alice. I've heard great things about that series. I definitely need to check it out.

Beachfla, thanks for the very apropos duck reference. You've made me realize that there's a way to make my earlier question (Bush, Rumsfeld or Cheney?) more difficult: Bush, Rumsfeld or a duck? Or wait a minute, is that easier?

Is the duck lying?

The duck is just a duck. It can't talk, so it can't lie.

My grandmother had a question that stumped me as a kid. If you know you're doing to die, would you rather be trampled by elephants or clawed by lions?

Nancy, did you mean that as an alternative to having sex with Bush, Rumsfeld or Cheney?

Is that a political question? Are there any donkeys in it?

Hey, one of my fave detective serieseseses (hard to stop spelling that one!) is by Kerry Greenwood (Australian writer), whose 1920s Melbourne-based protagonist is a slightly unbelievable and comprehensively wonderful sensual woman called Phryne Fisher, who shags and detects with equal aplomb. I don't read romance novels, but I have a sneaking suspicion these books could easily end up in the "Romance" section as easily as they're placed in "Mystery/Detective". And that dark edge makes them so much more fabulous reading.

I firmly believe in mixing "genres". The only reason for pigeonholes is to make the marketer, bookseller, or librarian's job easier. Us, the readers (and marketers, bookseller, and librarians, of course), should mix'n'match our reading genres as much as we can.

Writer like Kerry G. mean I end up in a bit of historical fiction, a bit of sci-fi (in her other writings), a bit of crime, a bit of sex, a bit of gritty realism, and quite a lot of good food.

Bring it ALL on!

Fiona (infoaddict).

Fortunately, none of Bush, Cheney, or Rumsfeld would be interested in me. Well, maybe Cheney, if it's partially genetic and all.

But even more fortunately, that is why good Americans like me make sure to carry a cyanide capsule, just in case we get stuck between such a rock and a hard place, so to speak.

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