The reviews for The Devil She Knows have been the best of my career, which is, of course, a good thing. You always believe that your new work is your best, and it helps if the people reading it think the same way. The best of the best, from Booklist, was also my first review with the word fellate used in the opening line, or anywhere else in a review for that matter.
I’m learning to live with the fact that reviews, good or bad, can be spoilery. As a crime fiction author, I do my best to pack as much suspense and as many surprises into the book as possible without destroying the story’s credulity, and though I understand the challenges of reviewing (like making the point of what captured your interest) I still get a little tweaked when someone reveals a surprise I’ve carefully arranged and timed. And I emphasize a little, because gratitude for the time and effort always comes first – even when I get toasted.
Plus, reviews are one of the only ways to see if certain choices land with the intended impact; the audience never quite sees the work exactly the way the artist intended, and I find that fascinating and part of the fun.
In The Devil She Knows, a key early event gets mentioned in every review – one that I had planned as a surprise and a shock, though that’s a hope I have since abandoned. (Obviously, since I’m discussing it here) No one, it seems, can resist talking about a blow job. Especially when that blow job, or more specifically, witnessing it, is the critical act that sets the plot in motion. (If a politician gets head after hours in an empty bar and no one is there to see it, is it still a scandal? ‘Cause it is if someone does see it.) It’s been fun watching the euphemisms abound in the varying publications.
The scene has been a challenge. When the manuscript was out at publishers, that scene was always discussed– some thought it was great, some wondered if it shouldn’t be cut and replaced with a less alarming act (like murder), though I did notice that those who did want it changed were careful not to mention that it’s a (very brief) sex scene between two men, lest the homosexual angle be taken as the part being criticized.
From my perspective as the author, the scene works artistically, which was really my only standard for inclusion. Creating the context was essential. As a straight man, I was conscious of writing a sex scene between two men that makes both participants look bad and yet trying to present it in a way that doesn’t come across as judgmental of the act itself. It’s not particularly exciting or sexy sex. In fact, it’s a shade grotesque, and very intentionally so. And I present it that way not because it’s sex between two men, but because it’s a scene, it’s the scene, that introduces a central theme of the book – which is not sex, but power. More specifically, how those who have power wield it over those who do not, and how the powerful often use sex as a weapon.
Unfortunately, no matter how you present it in a book, abuse of sexual power shocks and surprises no one. You don’t need book reviews; just look at the real-life headlines.