Saturday 9 February 2008


‘How-to-do-it’ manuals for beginning writers have been around a long time and I’ve amassed quite a collection of them, mainly out of sheer curiosity. Some of the advice given is very sound, sometimes – naturally – opinions conflict. And sometimes the passage of time, and social advance, render the advice rather quaint.

Take, for instance, a chapter on ‘Taboos’ from Mystery Fiction: theory and techniques by an American crime writer called Marie F. Rodell. It was published in 1954 and in his introduction, Maurice Richardson said it was the only manual of its kind of which he was aware. How times have changed, both in terms of the availability of guidance for crime writers, and what they tend to write about.

I thought some of you might be entertained by Rodell's words of wisdom:

‘Chief among the taboos are those relating to the handling of sex.

The true mystery fan – as opposed to the reader of ‘tough’ adventure novels – is strait-laced in matters of sexual morality...booksellers and librarians will tell you it is especially true of the feminine majority of mystery addicts.

Sexual perversions, other than sadism, are definitely taboo. And sadism must be presented in the least sexual form. Homosexuality may be hinted at, but never used as an explicit and important factor in the story…All other perversions are absolutely beyond the pale.

Even references to normal sex relationships must be carefully watched. Except in the ‘tough’ school, unmarried heroines are expected to be virgins, and sympathetic wives to be faithful to their husbands. (A tearful and truly repentant Magdalene is sometimes possible.) A certain amount of sexual joking between married characters is permissible, so long as it is not crude…

There can be no question but that these taboos do limit the field of potential material for murder fiction; but it is easy to see that outraging an audience in this fashion will not help to shock them in the way the mystery writer intends.’

So now we know!


Juliet said...

Well I think you've just set yourself an interesting writer's challenge! Could write a crime story, set in the contemporary world, that conforms to all these strictures and yet is still interesting and realistic? (A 1950s pastiche would be cheating!). I suspect it would be quite difficult . . .

Xavier said...

Autres temps, autres moeurs. It's worth pointing out, however, that the fifties were an astoundingly innovative period for mystery fiction, unlike the dire two decades that followed.

Jilly said...

I'm not sure the comment about sex and female mystery addicts was ever true. I used to be a librarian in the late 60s and early 70s and was amused to see that the most sexually explicit books - both mystery and otherwise - were borrowed by elderly lady readers. One I remember in particular said 'It was disgusting and I read every page, dear! Have you got any more like it?' All this accompanied by a knowing twinkle. Maybe he only knew very refined lady mystery addicts.

Martin Edwards said...

Juliet, it would be an interesting challenge, but I'm not sure I'm up to it! What appeals to me is to confront some of the taboos, but (generally) to leave plenty to the imagination.

Xavier, I'd be interested to know your favourite innovative books from the fifties.

Jilly, I agree! And I'm sure there was a lot of reading between the lines in the past.