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?