First of two parts
Comedian George Carlin had seven words. Mystery novelist John Sanford has hundreds, but he repeats. John Grisham uses them sparingly. Many mystery, suspense and thriller writers use them. But some don’t.
Agatha Christie didn’t. Neither did a whole generation of cozy authors from Dorothy L. Sayers to Ngaio Marsh to Charlotte MacLeod.
Swear words, dirty words, four-letter words, cuss words or however you describe them are the way many people—including mystery writers—express themselves. Are words like f**k and s**t appropriate in mystery fiction? Or does avoiding profanity altogether make present-day dialog sound tame and artificial?
I’m a little new to mystery writing and the use of expletives still fascinates and puzzles. I wrote about this topic here when I’d published my first mystery. Now that I sent the manuscript for my third Nostalgia City mystery to my publisher, I’m still intrigued. Although I have settled on a profanity policy for my own work, I decided to take another look at the opinions and practices of mystery readers and writers alike. The result was damn surprising.
Comedian Carlin famously said there were seven words you could never say on television. Of course today you can hear them all on cable and streaming TV. If you’re interested in what Carlin’s words are, check out the note at the end of this article. As perhaps a sign of the times, each of those words has its own Wikipedia entry.
But just because f**k, s**t and other nasty words are more common, doesn’t mean that all readers accept profanity as an integral part of mystery/suspense fiction. In my previous profanity post I quoted from someone writing on an Amazon discussion page asking for the names of mystery writers who didn’t use swear words. A quick search recently yielded similar inquiries on the book-oriented websites Goodreads and LibraryThing, on a Yahoo Q&A and elsewhere.
The first place to look for mysteries or suspense stories without four-letter words would be any book published before 1955 and maybe even a little later. You would likely not even find the word damn in the earlier-mentioned cozy mysteries. You can say the same for Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and slew of other hardboiled detective novels prior to the 1950s.
Avoiding s**t and f**k in today’s novels is a bit more daunting, but a number of contemporary mystery writers avoid four-letter words or use them carefully. I checked the four John Grisham novels I have on my Kindle and only found an occasional s**t, but no f**ks.
Before I go further, like many mystery writers, I use occasional profanity, for reasons I’ll explain. Yet I’m reluctant to write f**k online. I equate what I write here with journalism, okay analysis journalism, editorial opinion but journalism nonetheless. I learned much of what I know about writing as a newspaper reporter, and the canons of journalism—and the AP Stylebook—counsel restraint in raw language. In a novel you can say whatever the f**k you want to. Here I’m a little more circumspect.
The same can’t be said for John Sandford. He recently wrote on his website that whenever he releases a new book, a large number of people write to him complaining about how he has increased his use of profanity. He paraphrases a reader: “[T]his latest one is nothing but filth, filth, filth, pure unadulterated profanity and swearing, for its entire length.” The email writer concluded, says Sandford, by saying that while normally he donates books he doesn’t like to a library, “this one is going straight in the trash.”
To combat the theory that he is using more profanity than ever, Sandford created an amazing spreadsheet on his site. Down one side of the page are the names of all his books; he’s written more than 40. Across the top of the spreadsheet are the words “f**k, s**t and damn. (I don’t know why damn is there, but never mind.)
The chart makes it easy to scan across to see how many of these words are used in a particular novel or read down the list to see the largest number of f- or s-words he’s used in any novel. The chart shows that he’s right, the numbers are not going up. The chart does show, however, that in one of his books, Shadow Prey, he used the f-word 270 times. But in his defense, although in more than 20 of his books he used f**k more than 100 times, his average is below that. To further document his colorful language, Sandford includes a colorful graph (red for f**k and green for s**t) showing instances of those words in each book.
Now as Sandford, yours truly, and many other authors continue to put foul words in their character’s dialog, I discovered that f**k and s** are not necessarily profanity. I’ll be damned.
Stay tuned for profanity update, part 2, including why I use bad words.