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For a Mystery Novel, How Much Sex Is Too Much Sex?

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“Why isn’t there more sex in your books?” I get this question a lot. In my DMs. In my email. In Zoom book club meetings, bookstore signings, and festival events. This, more than any other, seems to be the question my enthusiastic (and apparently thirsty) fans are burning to ask. Written inquiries are usually punctuated with fire emojis, or more commonly, a string of bright red chili peppers. When voiced by a member of a live audience, they’re accompanied by a lot of head nods and laughter.

Don’t get me wrong . . . I usually laugh, too. I always open a Q&A by inviting my readers to ask me anything about my process or my books, but as it turns out, the question of sex isn’t an easy one to answer. The first time I was grilled about the lack of graphic sex in my books, I was a deer in headlights. I’m pretty sure I had an easier time explaining the birds and the bees to my sons. I scrambled, falling back on genre definitions to qualify my answer: that my books are mysteries with romantic elements rather than romances with mystery elements. That sex isn’t an expectation of the mystery genre as it often is in romance.

My explanation was met with a Zoom screen full of blank stares and blinks. Because they had expected more sex, genre be damned. And that got me thinking . . . When it comes to the question of sex on the page, can it really be answered by genre alone?

As an avid romance reader, I’m no stranger to heat. I enjoy a wide range of books with an equally wide range of spice levels, and when I pick up a novel by any of my favorite romance authors, I know there will be a tension-laden courtship at the center of it, hopeful that relationship will be fully explored, doors flung open, clothes and inhibitions stripped with reckless abandon as I’m invited along for the ride. 

But the tag on the front of my novel reads: a mystery. It’s published by an imprint that specializes in thrillers and crime. And yet some readers had clearly expected more sex, specifically the explicit variety. 

The intersection where my goals as a storyteller meet a reader’s expectations is a messy one. The line markers between genres are old and hard to make out sometimes, and traditional conventions don’t provide many clear signs about what to expect between the covers of newer books. I’m not suggesting that genre is becoming less important—genre labels create a widely-recognized and necessary structure to organize and differentiate a complex range of books—but the boundaries typically established by genre may be less important to today’s readers than to those who work in publishing-adjacent roles. Online platforms are changing the ways readers are discovering and sharing books, allowing them to adopt their own rating systems and label their own shelves, and as their genre definitions become more fluid, authors enjoy more freedom to drift across those lines.

My own mystery novels straddle several genres, weaving humor, thrills, and romantic subplots into the whodunnits. The books bend traditional genre rules, disregarding some completely, and as more and more genre-benders find their way into the market, the answer to how much sex and when to show it may require a bit more nuance. 

What can readers expect when we begin to bend and blend genres? How is a reader to know which books will be open vs closed door? The clues used to be much clearer, the sexy novels easily recognizable on the shelf. Romance novels usually featured a wild-haired model with come-hither eyes and well-oiled pecs. But lately, cover trends in romance lean toward playful and elegant rather than spicy. Illustrated covers and floral designs have become increasingly popular, similar in feel and tone to what readers have come to expect from women’s fiction or coming-of-age stories. And with the massive success of recent crossover novels, we continue to see those genre lines blur. 

When Verity, a dark thriller by romance juggernaut Colleen Hoover, took the suspense market by storm, her romance fans likely came to that book expecting quite a bit of heat. Same with Tessa Bailey’s oh-so-sizzling My Killer Vacation, which is tagged both as a romance and a murder mystery. But for mystery and suspense readers who are new to these authors, the spice level of these genre-benders might have come as a bit of a shock.

So, if genre tags don’t determine the level of spice, what does? My mysteries contain romantic subplots. There’s no shortage of tonsil hockey and heavy petting going on in the midst of all my murdery shenanigans, so why not take my readers one step further and offer them a peek in the bedroom? What factors determine when and if I close that door?

For me, how much sex I show my readers boils down to the story I’m trying to tell and which themes lie at the heart of it. I picture it as a Venn diagram of critical story elements, where genre, character, theme, plot, and stakes come together, and the sweet spot is in the tiny sliver of space where those circles intersect. Aiming for that target means asking tough questions about which words, scenes, and chapters stay and which ones end up on the cutting room floor: is that scene essential? Does it propel the plot? Does it reveal something about my characters and what’s truly at stake for them? Does it bring focus to the theme or distract from it? 

If my protagonist is a woman rediscovering her self-worth after divorce, and if the relationship at the core of that story is an inspirational friendship between two caregivers, and if the goal of these women is to solve a murder mystery while evading the cops, then an extended detour to sexy town takes time and focus away from that. Lengthy bonus scenes, while titillating, can weaken the mast of the novel. If I’m closing the door in my book, it’s not to shield your delicate eyes. It’s to keep you from becoming distracted and losing sight of the plot.

But if the central relationship I’m exploring is a romantic one in which the characters’ arcs are realized through physical intimacy—if the central mystery is will they or won’t they, and if the suspense revolves around the consummation of the act—then bring your appetites, and don’t bother knocking. Chilies will be served, dear readers, and they’ll be coming in hot!



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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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