Nostalgia City Mysteries

By Mark S. Bacon

Category Archives: Mystery novels

Gosh, is profanity the right word?

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Obscenity and profanity in mystery novels

Second of two parts

Swear words, no matter how the hell you look at them, can be a challenge for mystery writers.  Use foul language and you risk alienating or offending some readers.  Studiously avoid profanity and your dialog, especially in scenes of stress, could sound implausible.

But gosh darn, now that I’m two columns into this discussion, I discover—thanks to an article by novelist Elizabeth Sims in Writer’s Digest online—that I’ve been using an imprecise word for naughty language.  Even naughty is not quite right.

If you do a Google search for profanity in mystery novels, one of the first results you’ll see is a link to my 2016 column on this subject.  Regardless, I’m not trying to be the Internet’s expert on mystery writers’ swear words.  And before we go further, we need to define terms.

Profanity, as Sims points out, is the word frequently used to denote any objectionable word, but  profanity literally means words prohibited by religious doctrine. In other words, terms that are profane.  Generally this would cover Jesus Christ or God as epithets, but not necessarily f**k, etc.  The term blasphemy comes to mind.

Obscene and obscenity are better, more exact terms to describe most cuss words or coarse language.  Merriam-Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines obscene this way: “disgusting to the senses: repulsive.” This could be an eye-of-the-beholder situation, depending on the words’ use, but let’s not split hairs.   Sims notes that obscene words often refer to sex.  The f-word is the most objectionable example, she says, and she concludes with understatement,  “Adding mother as a prefix ups the ante.”

Returning to the pros and cons of potentially offensive language, several authors (in addition to John Sandford, mentioned in my previous post) have written reasoned defenses of  “writers who dare to swear,” as mystery writer Christina Larmer puts it.

In a 2015 Huff Post article she wrote:

“Adding profanity is just a natural, fluid part of the writing process. I hear the character’s voice, I spew it out. Sometimes, when I read back through the copy and the language feels jarring or overdone, I remove it, just as I remove clichés and adjectives that don’t work. But I never remove it so my readers can feel more comfortable or content. This ain’t Chicken Soup for the Soul, guys.”

I agree.  Before I’d finished my first mystery, I decided I would use profanity, but  judiciously. Some of my characters are bad people.  They rob and kill for money. They don’t watch their language. They are not likely to say, “Excuse me sir but I believe we may have a slight disagreement. I feel your attitude does not reflect sincerity.”

In addition, when my ex-cop protagonist, Lyle Deming, faces a troublesome situation, I want him to be able to say, “Oh s**t.” Maybe that’s because it’s the way I often react to adversity.  Perhaps writers who don’t swear themselves, don’t have their characters tell anyone to f**k off.  As academics say, this is a sub-topic that warrants further study—but not here.

Then there’s the comparison of violence and inhuman acts vs. obscenities.  Larmer says she’s baffled by people who take exception to profanity but “make absolutely no mention of the fact that in one book, for instance, I leave someone in a dank basement to be devoured by rats.”

“Writers don’t use expletives out of laziness or the puerile desire to shock or because we mislaid the thesaurus,” writes Kathryn Schulz in the June 5, 2011 issue of the New York Review of Books.  “We use them because, sometimes, the four-letter word is the better word—indeed, the best one.”

In contrast, author Mark Henshaw says profanity is usually a sign of weak writing.   Writing on his website in June of 2014 he said,  “Profanity has become so common in modern media that I feel its inclusion almost never adds anything to an artistic work. Profanity has lost its shock value, rendering it useless as a literary device for character development or delivering emotional impact.”

It is common, and it can easily be overdone.  But still.

Some of the best arguments for not using profanity come from writers who penned novels when damn was considered foul language and four-letter words never found their way into polite print. Yet some writers still got the point across.

Here’s how Dashiell Hammett described one of Sam Spade’s explosions,  “He cursed Dundy for five minutes without break, cursed him obscenely, blasphemously, repetitiously in a harsh guttural voice.”

He didn’t even need to call him a bastard; we understood.

One of my favorite writers of the past is Ross Macdonald.  His novels spanned the period when profanity was unacceptable to the early 1970s when many of the restraints came off.

In his 1958 novel, The Doomsters, he used hell 22 times,  damn 13 times, Christ 4 times and Jesus twice.  No other profanity.  In his 1951, The Way Some People Die, he was a little more careful, but no less effective:

“Blaney and Sullivan escorted me to the car. In order to keep their minds occupied, I swore continuously without repeating myself. ”

To conclude, for now:  Mystery writers don’t use obscene language today for shock value as Henshaw indicates. We use it because, like it or not, it’s become a big part of life.  We use swear words occasionally for the same reason we don’t use “forsooth” or “verily.”  We want our dialog to be contemporary and realistic.

Editor’s note:  In the first article in this series I attempted to include a link to the profanity article I wrote two years ago.  Instead, the link simply brought the reader back to the latest article.  It’s been corrected online, but if you read the post in email and missed the earlier article link, here it is: https://baconsmysteries.com/?s=do+you+hate+f**

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D.C. intrigue and death highlight new mystery

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Caged
Ellison Cooper
Minotaur, July 2018
Kindle $13.99  Trade paper $25.49
368 pages

Caged is a gripping thriller debut for fans of Kathy Reichs, Thomas Harris, and Patricia Cornwell.

FBI neuroscientist Sayer Altair hunts for evil in the deepest recesses of the human mind. Still reeling from the death of her fiancé, she wants nothing more than to focus on her research into the brains of serial killers. But when the Washington D.C. police stumble upon a gruesome murder scene involving a girl who’d been slowly starved to death while held captive in a cage, Altair is called in to lead the investigation. When the victim is identified as the daughter of a high profile senator, Altair is thrust into the spotlight.

As public pressure mounts, she discovers that another girl has been taken and is teetering on the brink of death. With evidence unraveling around her, Altair races to save the second victim but soon realizes that they are hunting a killer with a dangerous obsession…a killer who is closer than she thought.

Ellison Cooper has a Ph.D. in anthropology from UCLA, with a background in archaeology, cultural neuroscience, ancient religion, colonialism, and human rights. She has conducted fieldwork in Central America, West Africa, Micronesia, and Western Europe and worked as a murder investigator in Washington DC.  She lives in the Bay Area with her husband and son.

F**king profanity in mystery novels: an update

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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. Continue Reading →

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