Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Breaking Taboos

Most of us are raised to believe that there are some things that are polite subjects of conversation, and others that “we just don’t talk about” – they’re taboo. What’s interesting is that those taboo subjects have changed considerably over the years. The same is true of topics that are brought up in fiction. If you look at the way crime fiction has changed over time, you can trace the changes in what we think are acceptable topics to write about, and what aren’t. We can even argue that crime fiction’s been one of the “rule-breaking” genres over time. One reason for that might be that murder itself isn’t exactly a light, “pretty” topic to begin with. The reasons for which people murder are sometimes sordid, ugly and taboo, and as times have changed, crime fiction has reflected that more and more.

It used to be that even the topic of murder itself was considered “not very nice.” We see this attitude in Agatha Christie's The Murder on the Links, in which Poirot finds the killer of Paul Renauld, a wealthy Canadian émigré to France. That novel opens with a chance meeting between Captain Arthur Hastings and a young woman he knows only as “Cinderella.” Later in the novel, “Cinderella” appears at the Villa Genevieve, where the murder occurs, and wants to be shown around the “scene of the crime.” Hastings is put off by what he sees as “Cinderella’s” morbid interest in the murder. Agatha Christie makes the same point in Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts). In that novel, Hercule Poirot attends a house party at which the Reverend Stephen Babbington, a man who, it would seem, hasn’t an enemy in the world, is poisoned. One of the guests, Hermione “Egg” Lytton Gore, takes an active role in finding out who the murderer is, much to the chagrin of her mother, Lady Mary Lytton Gore. Lady Mary sincerely wishes her daughter wouldn’t take such an interest in something as sordid as murder.

Three Act Tragedy also obliquely addresses another, formerly taboo topic: sex and adultery. The house party at which Babbington dies is hosted by Sir Charles Cartwright, a retired actor. “Egg” Lytton Gore is romantically interested in Sir Charles, and speculates on various ways that she can attract his interest. At one point, she discusses the matter with Mr. Satterthwaite, and says that she supposes Cartwright’s had several affairs. Her frank attitude puts Satterthwaite off. Several of Christie’s other novels (e.g. Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect) and The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours) bring up the topic of adultery, but they refer to the infidelity in very general terms, and usually in negative terms.

The same is true of Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle, in which Queen investigates the murder of Sheila Grey, a well-known designer. Chief among the suspects is Ashton MccKell, a millionaire who has a penthouse in Sheila’s apartment building and who’s been having an affair with her. He’s so concerned with being discreet that he uses an elaborate scheme (that includes a disguise) to keep their affair secret.

Homosexuality isn’t referred to at all in early crime fiction such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s. In later, Golden Age, novels it’s referred to but again, obliquely and with negative connotations. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s fictional mystery novelist, is working with Robin Upward, an up-and-coming playwright, on the dramatization of one of her novels. Upward wants to include a romance subplot in the play, but Oliver insists that her sleuth, Sven Hjerson, isn’t particularly interested in women. Upward protests, saying that they “…can’t make him a pansy,” and that it’s “not that kind of play.” While Mr. Ellsworth, who’s a suspect in a series of unexplained deaths in Murder is Easy (AKA Easy to Kill), is a homosexual, the topic’s glossed over.

Prostitution’s also considered a taboo topic in classic crime fiction. When it is discussed, it’s described in very negative terms. It's not until “hardboiled” novels such as Mickey Spillane’s My Gun is Quick that prostitutes are seen as sympathetic characters in most crime fiction. In that novel, Spillane’s sleuth, Mike Hammer, has a chance encounter with a prostitute in a coffee shop. When she is murdered two days later, Hammer decides to make himself personally responsible for finding her murderer. In that story, Nancy Sanford, the prostitute, is a sympathetic “hard-luck” character – unusual for the times.

Another taboo topic, race, has also only recently been an “acceptable” theme for crime fiction. Until the 1950’s there really wasn’t much discussion of race in mystery novels. Agatha Chrstie didn’t really discuss it until Hickory, Dickory, Death (AKA Hickory, Dickory Dock) in 1955. In that novel, which focuses on the murder of a young woman in a student hostel, some of the other residents in the hostel are nonwhite, and there’s an interesting discussion of race relations.

In one way, the reticence of much classic crime fiction has an advantage; novels that don’t tackle taboo topics can keep the reader’s interest focused on the plot, the characters and the mystery. On the other hand, taboo subjects such as sex, adultery, race issues and the like are realities. They are also sometimes the reason that real-life murders are committed. So there’s an argument for being frank about them in crime fiction, and a lot of modern crime fiction is just that.

For instance, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series is quite open about prostitution, sex and adultery. In The Daughters of Cain, for instance, one of the main characters is a prostitute named Ellie Smith, whom Morse interviews in connection with the murders of one of her clients, a retired Oxford don, and his former scout. Ellie’s presented in a sympathetic light; in fact, some of the story is told from her perspective. She’s also presented as a strong character; she’s able to take care of herself. In The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, a member of the Oxford Board of Examiners is murdered, and Morse looks into the private lives of the rest of the Board. What he finds is a world that includes frank adultery, pornographic films and prostitution, among other formerly taboo topics.

In Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden, DCI Hannah Scarlett and Oxford history don Daniel Kind investigate the murder of a landscaper and the history behind the mysteriously-shaped garden of the cottage where Kind lives. In the process, they also uncover many other secrets, including such formerly taboo topics such as incest and adultery.

In Caroline Graham’s Death of a Hollow Man, Inspector Tom Barnaby investigates the murder of an obnoxious leading man during a provincial repertory troupe’s performance of Amadeus. Two of the characters in the novel, Tim Young and Avery Philips, are a homosexual couple who rent a room out to Nicolas Bentley, who’s an aspiring actor. Tim and Avery’s relationship is portrayed in a very matter-of-fact way, and neither is what one might call “stereotypical.” The same is true of the character of Serena Brinkman in my own B-Very Flat. Serena's a talented violinist who's preparing for a major competition. On the night of the competition, Serena suddenly dies. Her partner, Patricia Stanley, believes Serena was murdered and asks for help from former-police officer-turned-professor Joel Williams
. The two young women are quite matter-of-fact about their relationship, and although the novel doesn't dwell on the fact that Serena's gay, there's certainly open discussion of it.

Race relations are explored in several modern crime novels. For instance, in John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, a young black girl, Tonya Hailey, is viciously raped and brutalized by two white racists. Her father, Carl Lee Hailey, is determined that his daughter’s attackers will not get away with what they did, so he lies in wait for them on their way into the courthouse and murders them. Hailey is then arrested for their murders. The novel centers on the themes of race and vigilante justice, and is graphic in a way that earlier crime fiction was not.

There are, of course, many other examples of taboo topics discussed in today's crime fiction that space doesn’t permit me to give here. What do you think? Are there too many taboo topics in today’s crime fiction? Does discussion of taboo topics take away from your enjoyment of a mystery novel? Where do you see crime fiction going in the next years?


  1. I wouldn't want to only read edgy books, but they're fun to read sometimes. I thought "Girl w/ the Dragon Tattoo" was edgy and dealt w/ taboos. I enjoyed it, though. Then cozies, of course, don't 'go there' at all. I like having lots of different types of mysteries to suit my different moods.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Great topic, Margot! We were probably all raised with the edict, "It's not polite to talk about money or politics". It still haunts me; particularly troublesome when one studies Political Science in university.
    You raised good points about taboo topics in modern day writing. I worry a great deal about mentions of sexual orientation, race, and even gender in my writing. In my cozy, my protagonist is a "fish out of water" and she's trying to figure out what is taboo.
    I really like your discussion of the Agatha Christie stories and certain characters' purient interest in murder. It always makes me laugh when Dame Christie says things like "as so often is the case in women of her class, Mary (the scullery maid) took great pleasure in the details..."
    So I guess that would show us that comments about "class" would be considered taboo by today's standard. Thanks for this blog.

  3. Elizabeth - You're right about cozies; they generally don't deal with taboo topics. Part of their appeal is that they aren't as "edgy," and plenty of people don't like their mysteries to have that much "edge" to them. I'm glad you mentioned Stieg Larsson's work, too - it's a really clear example of how a novel can break traditional taboos and still carry the reader along.

    Bobbi - You bring up such an interesting point! What counts as taboo in one social setting/culture is perfectly appropriate in others. When we move to a different setting, as your Lucy Beam does, we have to learn all over again what the taboos are.

    You also make a really interesting point about how topics that didn't used to be taboo have become taboo. In Christie's day, it was perfectly natural to mention social class and pass judgment on people based on their class. You see the same thing about different nationalities. Today, though, we wouldn't consider it appropriate to categorize people that way. That's really interesting to think about - thanks!

    Folks, Bobbi's just written a great cozy called Cream with your Coffin. You can read a description of the novel here . At the bottom of the page, there's a link for you to read an excerpt, too.

  4. It's interesting how western society has evolved over the past 100 years; some subjects that were never spoken of or referred to are now everyday topics of conversation.

    I don't veer away from any particular subject, but I do try and remember it's my characters' opinions that matter and not mine. I cannot stand reading books (or movies or plays) where its incredibly obvious that the characters are parroting the author's opinions and not theirs.

    I write about the world 70 years ago. Attitudes were different. My characters voice those attitudes.


  5. Elspeth - What a well-taken point! There is often a difference between what characters think, talk about, and believe is taboo. That's especially true in cases like yours, where the author and the characters are separated by time and culture. Interesting to think about... It's making me think about what it's like to write a character who has a completely different set of taboo topics - thanks : )

  6. Interesting that Elizabeth says cozies ´don´t go there at all´, because while reading your interesting post I was thinking of Louise Penny´s Gamache series with her interesting homosexual couple in the bistro. Well, perhaps Elizabeth does not see that as a taboo in today´s world, but at least they are being harassed by some homophobic teenagers in one of the books.

  7. Dorte - Thanks for reminding me of Olivier and Gabri : ). They're great examples of the lifting of the taboos on some topics. It used to be that we wouldn't even refer more than obliquely to homosexuality, let alone harrassment and homophobia; now it's considered a perfectly acceptable topic in crime fiction. I'm glad you brought this example up.

  8. Sometimes I wish that there were more taboos nowadays as there were in the older days - for example where killing pregnant women is concerned as in one recent "bestseller" which I was unable to read past about page 50.
    However, I think there are ways in which taboos can be handled well that leave the reader in no doubt as to what the taboo is, but without getting into revolting aspects. A good example to me is in Michael Connelly's The Scarecrow, which describes someone who has a particularly nasty and taboo habit, but not in such as way that you could be upset by it (or overly protected from what it actually was).

    It is interesting how one can read some of the older books, eg Sjowall and Wahloo, when these taboos were very much in force, and enjoy them just as much as modern books. Or look at an author such as Ruth Rendell who has been writing her Wexford series for 40 years now. Although the issues in the more recent books have changed and are sometimes quite taboo-ish (eg Simosla, which for its time was quite an unusual topic), they still don't seem to be as upsetting as some of the "out to shock, taboo-busting" commercial novels that involve women kidnapping & torturing men, or whatever the latest "shock" is that someone can dream up.

  9. Maxine - You're absolutely right. Talented authors can hint at taboo subjects and give the reader the message about what the taboo is without being gratuitous and deliberately shocking about it. I may be old-fashioned about this, but I don't think shock value is enough good reason to include something in a plot. To me, the first order of business is a strong, engrossing plot and good characters. That can be accomplished without being graphic.

    I'm glad you mentioned Simosla, as it really is a good example of the way a talented author can deal with a taboo subject without letting that overtake the novel. I admit I haven't read The Scarecrow, although I like Connolly. If it's as good as his other work, I'm sure it's a well-crafted balance between telling a taboo story without putting the reader off.