The sex industry is highly profitable, so it’s not surprising that it employs a lot of people. Of course, it’s also potentially very dangerous, which means that sex workers, among other people, sometimes take real risks. And there are some very ugly sides to the industry – aspects that even people in the industry find abhorrent. Despite the danger, it’s part of life in many places, including crime fiction. Oh, and you’ll notice in this post that I won’t be putting any focus on prostitutes, which is what a lot of people think of when they think of the sex industry. There’s more to the industry than that, and there are many, many books in which prostitution plays a role, so, too easy!
Leigh Redhead’s Simone Kirsch is a Melbourne-based former stripper who’s trying to make a living as a private investigator. She’s just getting started in the PI business, so she still does occasional stripping gigs. She knows people in the industry, too, and the fact that she’s been in the business means her contacts are more open with her than they might be with the police. The four novels in the series (Peepshow, Rubdown, Cherry Pie, and Thrill City) explore different aspects of the sex industry (peep shows, strip clubs, exotic massages, brothels, and a sex industry expo). And readers get to see some of what goes on in the background to make it all appealing.
In Donna Malane’s Surrender, we are introduced to Wellington-based missing person expert Diane Rowe. A year before the events of the novel, Diane’s younger sister, Niki, was murdered, and Diane’s life turned upside down. The search for Niki’s killer cost Diane her job (as a police officer) and her marriage, and the killer wasn’t caught. As the novel begins, Diane’s ex-husband tells her that Niki’s killer has himself been murdered, and in the same way. This news pushes Diane to start again and look for the truth about her sister’s death, even though it cost her so much before. One place she looks for clues is Niki’s former employer, a sleazy strip club called Pussy Galore. Diane finds out that there was more going on there than stripping and pole dancing, and readers get a look at this part of the sex trade.
Jill Edmondson’ series features Toronto PI Sasha Jackson. More than once, the cases she investigates involve the sex industry. In The Lies Have It, for instance, she’s working part time as a bartender. When a guest is murdered during a fetish club party at the bar, she gets involved in finding out who the killer is. Frisky Business takes her into the adult film industry when a porn star is murdered. In these novels, we see that the sex industry is more complex than it seems on the surface. We also see some of the real sorts of people who are in the business.
An adult film cinema plays a role in Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn. In it, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the murder of Nicholas Quinn, the first Deaf member of the Oxford Foreign Exams Syndicate. That group has charge of exams taken overseas, in countries with a British education tradition. When Quinn dies of poisoning, attention naturally turns to his work colleagues, and it turns out that every one of them is hiding something he could have found out. So, there’s more than one motive for murder. As Morse and Lewis sift through the evidence and talk to everyone, they find that an afternoon at a porno cinema plays a role in several people’s alibis. And there are several scenes in which Morse visits the cinema, and readers get the chance to see a bit of how those places are run.
And then there’s Paul J. Heald’s Death in Eden, which features Professor Stanley Hopkins (yes, Sherlock Holmes, fans, I noticed that name, too!). He’s working on a law thesis on the exploitation of women in the pornography industry – a study that he hopes will be his ticket to tenure at his university. He happens to run into an old friend, Donald Johannson, who owns an adult film studio. At first, it seems like a real stroke of luck; Hopkins will get the chance to do some interviews, and Johansson may get some of the credibility he and his studio need for his latest film to go ‘mainstream.’ Then, Johansson’s top star, Jade Delilah, is murdered in his office during a party. When he is arrested for the murder, he asks Hopkins to help him clear his name.
There are a lot of other novels, too, in which adult films, strip clubs, escort services, and other facets of the sex industry play roles. And it’s not surprising, when you consider how lucrative and prevalent they are. And they are complex, too, with different sorts of people involved, so there’s lots of room for plot and character development.
*NOTE: The title of this post is Billy Joel’s Captain Jack.
6 thoughts on “It’s Like Some Pornographic Magazine*”
Since I’m a crazy rule-breaker, I’m going to mention one of those thousands of books about prostitution just because it’s so good! Denise Mina’s The Less Dead is about the lives of street prostitutes in Glasgow in the 1980s, with a contemporary setting that shows what happens to these women as they age out of the industry. While I can’t speak from direct experience, the settings, culture and language all felt entirely authentic to me. But just to show I can also comply with rules, Reginald Hill’s A Pinch of Snuff introduced me to an aspect of porn movies I had never previously heard of – snuff films, where the supposedly fictional on-screen death is actually real. When I re-read it recently I googled* to see if snuff films really exist and it would appear the jury is out. Somehow my knowledge of human nature (as Miss Marple might say) makes me think it’s not impossible…
*I do wonder sometimes what my googling history must look like, if Big Brother happens to be watching me… 😉
Hahaha! I dread the day Big Brother takes a look at my search history, FictionFan! I am a crime writer, ya know…
I’m actually very glad you mentioned the Mina. She is so good at evoking place, local culture and lifestyle. I really like her writing style, and that’s such an interesting question, too. What happens to sex workers as they age out? It might have been a ‘rule breaker,’ but it’s a good un’. I’m equally glad you mentioned A Pinch of Snuff. That’s one that I had on my list to put in this post, but it didn’t get there (and should have). As to whether these sorts of films actually exist? I wouldn’t be shocked. Dismayed, perhaps, but not shocked. And I don’t think Miss Marple would be, either. She may appear to be a sweet, elderly lady, but she knows the darker side of human nature, doesn’t she?
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Margot, I did enjoy the Paul Heald book you mentioned a few years ago. I can dimly recall a Carl Hiaasen book, Striptease from years ago, as well. I’m hoping to read something by Leigh Redhead before too long.
Oh, yes, Col – Striptease! I hadn’t thought of that example, but it’s a good one. Thanks for adding it in. And Hiassen does tell a good story. As for Leigh Redhead’s work, I think she tells a good story, and her Simone Kirsch character is well-drawn. It’s not ‘family viewing’ (it actually gets fairly explicit here and there) but then, given the topics, you wouldn’t expect it to be tame. If and when you get to it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.
Margot: Thanks for mentioning Sasha Jackson. I thought she was a great character. I felt Jill Edmondson was getting stronger in the series and regretted there have not been more books. Jill was publicly battling cancer and I am not sure if she will return to writing crime fiction. She wrote a powerful article on her experience for the Toronto Star. Here is a link – https://www.thestar.com/life/health_wellness/2017/09/03/a-positive-outlook-not-always-in-your-best-interest.html
Thanks for that link, Bill. I agree that Sasha Jackson is a great character, and it’s really sad that there haven’t been more books. I wish Jill well, and I hope she wins the battle. I’d love to see her get back to writing, too – hopefully that will be possible.