A while back, the topic came up on DorothyL about turn-offs in mystery novels. Show stoppers, those things that when you read them make you put the book down and never pick it up again. Those things that makes you dash off breathless letters of condemnation. Those things, even, that make you want to buy Author Voodoo dolls and use them for a game of Author-in-a-Blender.
Some oft-cited examples, in no particular order:
• Women protagonists who blindly walk into peril
• People who won't talk to the police
• Sub-plots involving adultery
• Did I mention swearing?
• And smoking?
All this surprised me. First of all, it was a little alarming because my follow-up to Lost Dog features a fair degree of swearing and smoking (and extensive craving of a smoke) as well as people who won't talk to the police and a sub-plot involving adultery. I even have a minor character with lots of tattoos. I don't have a woman protagonist who walks blindly into peril in this one, which is my one saving grace I suppose. Oh, and I don't kill a dog, an act so heinous it doesn't even need to be listed.
My own personal pet peeve, as described in a previous post, is unrealistically great first time sex, with ubiquitous, unstoppable computer hackers running a close second. Other than that, I am pretty tolerant. We're talking about a novel here, after all. It's not like I have to hang out with these people.
Take smoking. My guy, Skin Kadash, smokes like a chimney in Lost Dog, but has mostly quit in my second novel, Chasing Smoke. All throughout Chasing Smoke, however, he's craving a smoke. I mean, he just quit, and it's hard. Sometimes he almost breaks down and lights up, but even when he's not smoking himself he's watching others smoke, and thinking about it. A lot.
Now, I'm not a smoker. I'm not even a former smoker. I'm gracious about it with my friends who do smoke, but I admit I don't care for the smell of tobacco smoke and I don't care for smoker's breath and smoker's hair. But, hey, let's face it, it's not my decision and if my friends want to smoke, it's their choice. If we're out having a beer and a friend lights up, no worries. I like my friends a LOT more than I dislike smoking. And no doubt I have plenty of habits that others don't care for.
In writing about smoking, I went to great lengths to create a character who was sympathetic, and whose need for a smoke actually accentuated his intrigue as a person. Aside from the challenge it posed to me as a writer, it also just fit in with who he is. How successful I am with Skin I'll leave for my readers to decide, but I would hope that no one would dismiss him, or the book, out of hand simply because he's a smoker.
Consider that other great taboo. Killing a dog or cat. As crime fiction writers, we can kill off untold numbers of people, but lay a finger on the fur of a single fictional pet and we're Hitler. Kids are pretty much sacrosanct too, though we're actually allowed to put children in danger at times.
True, some folks have gotten away with the killing of the innocents. Glenn Close still had a career after boiling the bunny. Steven Spielberg still gets to make movies despite T-Rex eating a dog in Jurassic Park II. And there are a number of successful books and films in which children come to a dark end. But for the most part, those are events we dramatize fictionally at our peril. "After he killed the pomeranian, I resolved to never buy another book by him, and to picket bookstores that sell his books, and to mail little ziplock bags of dog doody to his mother, and,... and,... and,..."
That's disappointing to me, and not because I want to kill a dog. I love dogs. And I love kids. And I love people, though certainly not all of them. But as a writer, I want to feel free to tell stories as they unfold, not feel constrained by lists of no-no's. And, as a reader, (and let's face it, I read a LOT more books than I'll ever write), I want authors to feel that they can tell the stories they need to tell without stressing about the Verboten!
I'm not advocating gratuitous butchery here. But let's be honest. We're killers, as writers, and voyeurs of killing, as readers of crime fiction. Even the coziest among us produce a body count that would be shocking if it weren't on the page. The distinction between a bloodless death in the drawing room and serial slaughter in an abattoir isn't all that great, even if sometimes we pretend it is. And certainly I know there are any number of topics that probably cross the line for the vast majority of us. I'm not saying there aren't valid lines. I'm also not suggesting that we have to read or write about topics that don't interest us. There are a million books out there, and none of them are for everyone. I just wonder if, considering the mayhem we do tolerate, some lines aren't a little arbitrary and unmindful of what's really going on here.
I don't smoke, and I don't have a tattoo, and I won't commit adultery. But I write about all these things, and many others that probably make it onto scold's list somewhere. I guess, in the end, if we're okay with Colonel Mustard doing it in the library with a candlestick, might it also be okay if he has a smoke afterwards, and maybe cops a feel from Mrs. White at the biker bar up the road while getting his tats touched up? We're being entertained by imaginary murder. Is a cigarette or illicit affair so awful in comparison?