A thug the size of an NFL lineman grabs Sam Shamus around the neck and throws him down the stairs. The bad guy follows him, stomps on his face and tells him he’s a low-life private dick and if he ever shows up again he’ll get a real beating.
Somehow Sam manages to get to his feet. He glares at the crook and says, “Pardon me sir, but I object to the way you’re characterizing my profession. And I ask that you refrain from inflicting further physical indignities, you hooligan.”
That’s what Sam says, anyway. Your average detective-novel hero might use different words.
Sam’s situation—or a version of it—went through my mind when I started writing mystery short stories and later, my first mystery novel. Should I use profanity? My initial answer: no. We’re slammed with the f-word so often in crime movies that profanity loses its punch. But the more I wrote, and the more I thought about it, studiously avoiding profanity seemed unrealistic. What the hell was I to do?
Profanity in literature, a fascinating topic—particularly in the mystery/suspense/thriller genre—varies from author to author. But before we get into that, a few words about four-letter words. While I eventually decided in favor of what’s delicately called swear words in my fiction, I’m still a journalist when I’m writing articles online. My inner AP Stylebook doesn’t permit me to use words you won’t find in your daily paper. Therefore I’m going to resort to f*** and s*** for two words everyone knows. Bear with me.
Not long ago, someone writing on an Amazon discussion page asked about bad language. She wrote: “I am unsuccessfully searching for mystery novels or medical suspense novels without profanity, swearing or sex scenes…that is of high quality content. Is there such a book? …[I] lose all interest…when profane and undesirable language or sex scenes enter the story.”
Of course my smart-alecky answer is, the Hardy Boys. But realistically, f*** and other obscenities only started showing up regularly in crime fiction roughly since the 1960s. For example, Agatha Christie, I’m sure, shocked the literary world in 1923, using the word hell in the beginning of her mystery, Murder on the Links.
I believe that a well-known anecdote exists to the effect that a young writer, determined to make the commencement of his story forcible and original enough to catch and rivet the attention of the most blasé of editors, penned the following sentence: “Hell!” said the Duchess.
Cozy mysteries whether they take place in an English drawing room, a school for girls or a country library rarely, if ever, use profanity. A book’s sub-genre influences the use of profanity today, with cozies (and YA and Christian mysteries) being almost devoid of “bad” words. Other factors depend on the writer. Dozens, if not hundreds, of present day mystery/suspense writers avoid cussing, either because it doesn’t fit their style, because of positive reader feedback or a combination of reasons.
Initially, I tried to avoid f*** and the rest. I believed, and I still do, that in many situations you can get the point across without using vulgarities. When an author writes, “he spat out a string of obscenities,” the reader can easily fill in the blanks. How about this one: “Profanity poured from his angry lips.” That’s stronger than a string of f***s and s***s, isn’t it? I particularly like a line from Ross Macdonald’s 1951 novel, The Way Some People Die. “…I swore continuously without repeating myself.”
Ultimately, however, I decided that for my work I could not avoid using four-letter words. My villains are often mean, cruel and brutal. They don’t watch their language. In addition, when my ex-cop protagonist, Lyle Deming, faces a troublesome situation, I want him to be able to say, “Oh s***!” Maybe that’s because it’s the way I often react to adversity.
Having committed myself, and seen my first mystery novel hit the shelves, I started to wonder how my use of profanity stacked up against other writers. Had I over done it?
I did an experiment and counted the frequency of f*** and s*** in my book and others. It was easy to do a word search on my manuscript to get my results. Then I did a word search on a few mystery novels I had on my Kindle. Did you ever look up dirty words in the dictionary when you were a kid? That’s what this felt like. As it turned out, my use of the magic words was somewhat modest by comparison.
Death in Nostalgia City features f*** four times and s*** 20 times. Here’s the score for some others:
Silent Joe by T. Jefferson Parker- f*** 18, s*** 20
The Suicide Effect by L.J. Sellers- f*** 17, s*** 20
Keeper of Lost Causes by Jucci Adler-Olsen- f*** 28, s*** 38
Obviously I’m in good company. Although in using the f-word, Adler-Olsen beat the s*** out of me.