Let’s Talk About Sex!

April 24th, 2018 by Max Allan Collins

Last time I discussed why I use clothing and setting descriptions for characterization, as well as to let the reader know how I see things. This was in response to complaints from readers who are bored by such material, and apparently have not developed an ability to skim.

The other complaint I’ve been getting lately – and not until lately, which is interesting – are the sex scenes in my books. Here are some typical Amazon complaints (turds in the punch bowl of many positive reviews) of Quarry’s Climax.

“As one might expect from the title, this is 33% story and 67% 14-year-old’s wet dream. If you’re 15, and still reading this stuff, better get checked out for some syndrome or another…”

“I’m a fan of the Nathan Heller series but this book was not written with an adult audience as it (sic) target. High school boys will love it; the rest of you, not so much.”

Several others took a similar tone.

Before we discuss, I request that you look at the cover of Quarry’s Climax and then read the back cover. Presumably this material was available to prospective buyers. Amazon includes the back cover copy, for example, on their listing.

Back already? Okay. Can anyone tell me why this cover, part of line famous for politically incorrect retro covers, would be on a book that lacked sexual content? How about the back cover, which tells prospective readers that the book is “raunchy,” and is about the publisher of a pornographic magazine who also runs a strip club? Any possibility, do you think, that the story within will have sexual content?

But there are actual reasons for the sexual content that have nothing to do with fairness-in-packaging. Like clothing and setting descriptions, sex scenes in my novels have to do with characterization, both of Quarry himself and the individual women.

For example, in The Wrong Quarry (perhaps my favorite Quarry novel), Quarry has affairs with an older woman and a young, wild one. Actually, the older woman is initially wild too, but as she and Quarry start having a, shall we say, loving relationship, their sex becomes rather conventional…married people sex, you might say. Meanwhile he is seduced by the young wild woman in a sex scene of flashing black lights and a waterbed and, well, you see the difference.

The other big factor is the story itself. When I conceive a story, it’s not out of whole cloth. I find a premise I like, think about it at length, then gradually put together an outline of sorts, which changes and grows as the novel is written. I know who did it and why, where the murder mystery is concerned, but the rest has a certain freewheeling quality. For example, in Quarry’s Climax, our “hero” has an oral sex encounter fairly early on with a stripper, which was not planned. Call it organic.

So the subject matter creates a landscape where different sorts of scenes occur. In the Nathan Heller novel, Better Dead – which has two novella-like sections – Nate encounters a beautiful female Commie in part one, and Bette Page in part two. Do you suppose that Nate gets laid at all in that novel?

But in the recently completed Do No Harm, there’s only one mild sex scene, with a recurring love interest of Nate’s, because the investigation of a brutal murder that is in part a sex crime does not lend itself to sexual shenanigans in Heller’s doings. It didn’t feel right for the tone of the book, or where Heller’s head was at. But back in Better Dead, when Bette Page gets frisky, you can bet Nate is interested.

I understand that in the Me Too era, things have gotten weird. I find it telling, and a little sad, that many of the complaints about sex in my novels clearly come from millennials and whatever the “gen” after that is called. Once upon a time, old people frowned on my smut. Now it’s smug kids who have lived very little. (I’ll pause while my son decides whether or not to edit that out.) That we’re also in the era of Fifty Shades of Grey does confuse the issue some. Are sexy books for women okay, but for men are objectionable?

Those who assume I include sex for gratuitous reasons may be partly right. As a youth, I learned from Spillane and Fleming, and they always had sex scenes sprinkled in as spice. Connery’s Bond always bedded three beauties. But what interests me most is how nobody complains about the violence. I have had not a single one of these sex complainers object to Quarry’s wholesale homicide. Heller’s, either.

Or as the Frankenstein Monster might say, “Sex baaaad, violence goooood.”

Recently working on polishing and completing the ‘50s novella “A Bullet For Satisfaction” (featured in The Last Stand, and developed from unpublished material in Mickey’s files), I edited out a sex scene. Imagine! Why? The characterization was off.

“A Bullet for Satisfaction” appears to be a collaboration between Mickey and one of his writer pals, unidentified. I doubt Mickey would have made the mistake that I had to rectify – a mistake of characterization. A beautiful woman and hero Rod Dexter go to bed (like Connery’s Bond, Rod beds several beauties in the novella), but it’s out of character for both of them.

So out it went.

I will admit to one thing. Often I have told Barb, “I’m not sure Quarry (or Heller or Hammer) and the love interest will wind up having sex in this one.” But almost always, they do. Barb’s patient smile when I raise the issue indicates she already knew the answer.

* * *

Here are more, better pics from the recent Crusin’ gig in Wilton, Iowa, at their annual all-classes reunion.

* * *

I am sorry to report that Super Troopers 2 is terrible. I love the Broken Lizard guys, and have liked every other movie of theirs, including of course the first Super Troopers. Barb and I were looking forward to this perhaps too much, and I will give it another try on home video release.

But the timing seemed strangely off, the jokes and situations not terribly funny (unless you’re into the comedy stylings of Rob Lowe), particularly the endlessly mined central gag of Canada being stupid or something. We spend a bunch of time with a trio of Mounties who are doggedly unfunny, even Mad TV’s Will Sasso.

Didn’t walk out, though.

I hope this doesn’t spell the end for Broken Lizard, whose members are very talented and likable. We saw them in person at Iowa City a few years ago and they were terrific, and met them after, finding them friendly and down to earth.

As for Super Troopers 2, maybe you can’t go home again. Or maybe middle-aged men acting like the young bucks of the first film just doesn’t work the same way.

* * *

Here’s a nice interview with me on the upcoming Mike Hammer mini-series (the four issues will be collected as a graphic novel).

And Publisher’s Weekly is interested in the Hammer mini-series, too.


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7 Responses to “Let’s Talk About Sex!”

  1. Peter says:

    Thanks for this update. Like the period in Hawthorne’s “the Scarlet Letter” we are in one where the obvious is lifted to a point of worship. Anyone who deviates, no matter what gender, in art, comments, fun is assigned “the” letter. No doubt we are living the polar opposite of the once “norm” of objectifying all women (everywhere) as sex objects, where we now are hypersensitive and ready to accuse the one who trips into said territory. This is my way of saying, in your work, especially due to the nature of it, keep at what you do and what people like to read. The over sensitive nature, appropriate to our times today, will even out, and God willing your books will continue to hold interest of future readers.

  2. Brian Drake says:

    I appreciate your insight, Max. I’m in the middle of writing an “adult” action series (think a contemporary Longarm with a license to kill, etc.) but it’s to the point where I might put another name on the cover because I don’t want to deal with the New Puritans who will also turn on the work under my own name (first book comes out in October, by the way). I must admit, though, that some scenes go a little too far simply for the sake of pissing them off, and whether that’s appropriate is an on-going debate, but the situation is getting quite ridiculous, and perhaps they need the lesson.

    As a writer, though, you’ve really given me a lot to think about in terms of different styles of characterization. I’ve never though clothing could be a viable way of communicating somebody’s character. For me, it’s always been physical marks or behavioral traits. Now I have to go back and read some Quarry and Heller and make notes on how to do it right!

  3. Tep says:

    I’m just going to add my own (very) “dumbed-down” comment; for the most part, people as a whole are idiots. Unfortunately, in modern times, those same idiots are a growing group and are given louder voices thanks to modern technology. I think things are going to get a lot worse before they get a lot better. At the moment, I feel that we are in a far too overly politically correct (without having any depth to back one’s feelings and/or cause) time period. There are no shades of gray at all, only black and white. I love your books, don’t change anything. I read hard-boiled, noir books because I love the feel and tone of them. I absolutely don’t read them for the sex (that’s what the internet is for). However, the sex-clothing-settings-character descriptions are entirely necessary to create the feel and tone that I love. As a side note, I will confess that I am a very far leftwing, lefty, leftist. Bernie Sanders said I needed to tone it down a bit. But, I have some odd quirks that don’t quite fit within the definition of “left-wing”. Being the person that I am; I understand that humans are so much more complex than other humans give them credit. That being said, I have to understand/know a person before I can either like or dislike them. Therefore, no person or group gets a free pass from me one way or the other. I know what I like and don’t like, feel and don’t feel, believe and don’t believe, and no person or group can force me to like, feel, or believe differently. One can talk to me and potentially shift my brain slightly in one direction or the other, but it can never be forced. I don’t agree with “political correctness”. I believe in politeness, non-trashiness, sympathy, and empathy. Anyone that I know that has those qualities can be as politically incorrect as they want to be. Keep up the great work! And thank you for Killing Town! I’m looking forward to reading it.

  4. These are some very interesting and thoughtful comments.

    Political correctness on the left — and as many of you know, I am a Democrat/liberal — is distressing to me. It reflects a party line mentality and humorlessness that reminds me of something I said a long, long time ago: The place where the far left and far right meet is a book burning — they’re just bringing different titles.

    My little essay is less about political correctness and more about the artistic reasons for doing sex scenes in my hardboiled school writing — that it’s for characterization, chiefly. But it’s also for fun. The overage of sex in QUARRY’S CLIMAX is satirical, and by the way the word “CLIMAX” is in the effing title.

    As for politics, I am pleased to say that a lot of my readers on the left have no trouble with Mike Hammer, who is a character of the right (in several senses of the term). I have pointed out before that Mickey was well aware of my left of center politics — which are driven by the “sympathy and empathy” dictum Tep mentions — and had faith in me that I would serve his characters and approach in a way consistent with his.

    And for that matter, I have plenty of readers on the right who understand that Quarry is, at heart, a criticism of the Vietnam war and the kind of thinking behind such a war. The readers who follow me, whether of the right or left or in between, tend to be smart. They get that I’m doing characterization when I do sex scenes and clothing/setting descriptions. I love having smart readers. That I don’t have more readers, and remain in some way a cult author, may indicate that Tep’s suspicion that there are a lot of idiots out there is right on the money. Some very bad writers have huge audiences — that, however, has always been true.

    At age 70, I can safely say it’s never been dumber out there. It’s always been at least kind of dumb. But right now, the idiots are swarming their own damn castle.

  5. Gary R Bush says:

    Well Said!

  6. Thomas Zappe says:

    Max, you are obviously a very wise and smart man. I was just about to sit down and write what you just said, but you beat me to the punch.

    I think the key word is “humorlessness”. I’m pretty good at spotting it, but I haven’t come up with a consistently workable cure as of yet. The closest thing to that would probably be the Mel Brooks approach to Hitler; RIDICULE.

  7. R. Lloyd says:

    So glad I found this site. I knew you wrote comics and you wrote the book, Road to Perdition, which was an excellent film.

    Seeing all the mystery and detective books you wrote, you have opened a whole new world for me. What series or book is the best place to start?