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by Michael Bracken
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"An erotic mystery," according to Edo van Belkom, author of Writing Erotica (Self-Counsel Press, 2000), Teeth (Meisha Merlin Publishing, 2001), Scream Queen (Pinnacle Books, 2003), and many erotic short stories, "is a mystery story that has erotic elements to it, while other erotica exists mainly for the erotic content. That's the beauty of erotica, it can add to any existing genre, or stand on its own."
Erotic mysteries come in two forms and multiple levels of explicitness. Some erotic mysteries are stories where sexual scenes can be inserted or deleted without impacting the story in a significant way. Others are stories in which erotic material is so integral that, once removed, leave no story at all.
"City Desk" (Gentleman's Companion, January, 1983) is a clear example of the first type of erotic mystery. During the course of an investigation into missing children, newspaper reporter Dan Fox meets and has sex with the older sister of a journalism student interning at the newspaper. The sex act has little connection to the surrounding story and the story would not suffer if the scene was removed.
In "Three's a Shroud" (Gent, February, 1991), the erotic element is important to the resolution of the story, but the level of explicitness is determined more by the market than the story. The narrator--who has hired a hitman to kill his wife--meets and has sex with a seductive barmaid. Photos of the narrator and the waitress caught in the act are later used against him.
When "Three's a Shroud" first appeared in Gent, the narrator's encounter with the waitress is described in explicit detail. When the story was reprinted in Bad Girls (Wildside Press, 2000), the scene ends when the narrator's pants hit the floor. Changing the level of explicitness does not damage the story in any way.
In the best erotic mysteries, the erotic element is crucial to the story. In "Adam's Rib" (Gentleman's Companion, March, 1983), a husband and wife are snowbound in a mountain cabin with no hope of rescue, no food, and a full liquor cabinet. They pass the time drinking, arguing, and having sex. When the husband's hunger and inability to tolerate his wife's incessant complaining finally get the best of him, it's their mutual enjoyment of bondage that allows him to solve two problems at once.
In "Games" (forthcoming in Decadence 3, Flesh & Blood Press), a couple's experimentation with sexual asphyxiation ultimately leads to a murder/suicide.
Blending Sex and Crime
Writing a successful erotic mystery requires a careful blending of both eroticism and the elements of good mystery fiction.
"Having a mystery element to an erotic story doesn't make anything easier or more difficult," said Belkom, "because writing anything well is hard. Having a mystery to frame your erotic scenes makes it more fun to write because you've got all kinds of possibilities for situations that might not usually be thought of as erotic. And tension, of course. A mystery has tension and that's just great for erotic and sexual situations."
Mysteries are often plot-driven literary jigsaw puzzles where clues must fit together. Eroticism is the character-driven exploration of carnal desire. Successfully blending the two requires careful attention to character motivation and ensuring that it properly drives the plot.
In "Glass Houses" (Even Roses Bleed, Books in Motion, 1995; Bad Girls, Wildside Press, 2000) an ex-con working for a landscaping company is initially motivated by lust for a client who taunts him. Her motivation, however, drives the story. She seduces the protagonist in order to frame him for the murder of her husband.
"Feel the Pain" (Flesh & Blood: Guilty as Sin, Mysterious Press, 2003) features a woman for whom physical pain is an important part of her sexual being. Her desire for abuse draws a private investigator deeper and deeper into her family problems.
In both "Glass Houses" and "Feel the Pain," sex itself acts as a clue for solving the larger mystery. The ex-con in "Glass Houses" realizes how he's been set up for murder when he thinks back on his sexual encounter with the murdering wife. He realizes that all the things they'd done in the heat of the moment--the broken bedroom door, the scratches on his back, the bruises on her face--had been preplanned and they all pointed to rape. The private investigator in "Feel the Pain" is seduced by his client's pain-loving daughter, finally realizes he's being used, and ultimately uses her desire for pain against her.
Finding the Markets
Although anthologies like the Flesh & Blood series specifically seek erotic mysteries, and horror anthologies like the Hot Blood series and the Decadence series will consider erotic mysteries which are borderline horror stories, the market for erotic mysteries is primarily the same as for most erotica.
"An editor of an erotic magazine or anthology isn't going to care all that much that your story is a mystery," said Belkom, "but a mystery editor might not want explicit sex or even any erotic content in his book. Let's face it, erotica is a lot more inclusive than most genres."
My experience agrees with Belkom's observation. Of the nearly three dozen erotic mysteries I've sold, I've only placed three with mystery or mystery/horror publications. The rest made their first appearances in men's magazines.
So, if you're a crime fiction writer seeking new markets, and you aren't shy about using sexual language in your writing, perhaps it's time to try your hand at writing erotic mysteries.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Michael Bracken is the editor of Fedora: Private Eyes and Tough Guys, Fedora II: More Private Eyes and Tough Guys, Small Crimes, and several other anthologies. He is the author of 10 books, including the well-received private eye novel All White Girls, and more than 800 shorter works. For additional information, including a selected bibliography and Bracken's speaking schedule, is available at http://www.CrimeFictionWriter.com.