Nostalgia City Mysteries

Mark S. Bacon

Category Archives: profanity in mystery novels

Agatha Christie and the history of the finger


If you think writing a novel is challenging, try coming up with a title. Especially one with a finger in it.

The title is critically important to a book, even more than the cover.  I often agonize over my decision. Many years ago, the publisher of my first book changed its title.

My new book, Dark Ride Deception, focuses on the theft of mind-bending technology for theme park dark rides (indoor attractions), but it includes the discovery of a severed finger. It’s not what the story is about. It’s just clue, a loose finger.  But I became enamored with using that in the title, and I remembered an Agatha Christie novel, The Moving Finger.

Christie wasn’t referring to an unattached digit like the one in my book. In fact, she took the title from the translation of Omar Khayyam verse:

“The Moving Finger writes: and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

The moving finger is vaguely referenced in her book, including a clue that anonymous threatening letters were typed by someone using one finger.

Immediately I thought about titling my book, The Unmoving Finger. That’s obviously the state of the finger in my book, and it would be an homage to that most famous mystery writer. But how many people would see the connection? The Moving Finger was published in 1942 and was not one of Christie’s most well-known works.

I thought my literary allusion might be wasted, so I aimed for something slightly less sophisticated. Getting the Finger was my first idea. Then I thought I could attract browsers’ attention even better with Giving the Finger.

References such as—to use the vernacular—flipping the bird, stretch farther back than Christie, even farther back than Omar Khayyam. According to Wikipedia, the middle finger gesture dates to ancient Greece and Rome. Also, there’s a story, probably apocryphal, that flipping the bird came into use at Battle of Agincourt between the British and French in 1415. The French supposedly planned to cut off the middle fingers of British archers so they couldn’t shoot.  When it didn’t happen, the British flipped their middle fingers in contempt.

Regardless of its occasionally obscene history, the finger is a popular word in mystery titles, often referring to, or pointing out, someone’s guilt. That was another of my great title ideas: Finger of Guilt. Author Paul Grossman beat me to it with his 2012 short story. The Amazon description of his Finger of Guilt says that star investigator Hans Fraksa claims the authorities have caught “Kinderfresser, the vicious child eater of Berlin.”

The finger is popular in titles for many, possibly less gruesome mystery/crime stories, including:

—  Finger Lickin’ Fifteen (2009) by Janet Evanovich
 — Finger Prints (2009) by Barbara Delinski
 — Fingerprint (2011) by Patricia Wentworth
— The Three Fingered Hand (2013) by Edda Brigitte Walsleben
— Fingered For Murder (2013) by Rodney Wilson, and
— The Finger: A Novel of Love & Amputation (2014) by David L. Robbins.

In addition to the publishing world, Hollywood keeps its finger on the pulse of its customers, and thus for decades a variety of crime and mystery films have used digital nomenclature in titles. Among the best known is Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Five Fingers (1952). Based on a true story, James Mason stars as a British spy working for the Nazis and Michael Rennie as a British agent on his trail. Unrelated to the Mankiewicz film, Laurence Fishburne starred in a 2006 thriller called Five Fingers. In addition, a 1959 television series used the same name.

I ran my finger down a long list of similarly-titled films as I struggled to decide what to call my book. A sampling:

— The Beast with Five Fingers (1946) This spooky mystery/horror film takes place in an isolated Italian manor house and stars Robert Alda and Peter Lorre. Based on the trailer, the entire film happens at night.
— Fingers (1978) Harvey Keitel plays Jimmy “Fingers” Angelelli, a talented pianist who is also a part-time collector for his mob-connected father.
— Finger Man (1955) Frank Lovejoy goes undercover to finger a mobster.
— Finger of Guilt (1956) Richard Basehart, a happily married film executive, is stalked by a woman he says he does not know.
— Five Fingers of Death (1972) In the poster for this martial arts movie, a guy has hooked fingers that look like claws.

Probably the most famous movie of the batch was the 1964 film that forever cemented James Bond in the hearts of viewers: Goldfinger.

Finally, after research and rumination, I decided that, because it tells what the book is actually about, Dark Ride Deception would be my best title. Fingers crossed. 

‘The Marijuana Murders’ by the numbers


Notable elements in the content and creation of my latest novel, The Marijuana Murders

Number of words in the book

Year Pac Man was licensed for distribution in the United States

Number of cups of tea I drank while writing

Depth in feet of the Lavender Pit in Bisbee, Arizona

Number of days it took me to write it

Number of miles from Nostalgia City to Agua Prieta, Mexico

Number of pages

Horsepower rating for the 1974 Chevy Monte Carlo with the 454 cu. in. engine (More than 300,000 Monte Carlos were produced by Chevrolet that year.)

Top speed (estimated) in miles per hour for a 2018 McLaren 570s

Height, in inches, of my protagonist Kate Sorensen

Number of chapters

Number of states in which medical marijuana is available (Medical marijuana is also recognized in the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.)

Number of beta readers and critique group members who read it before it went to my publisher

Number of states that have legalized recreational marijuana  (It’s also legal in D.C.)

Amount of estimated annual U.S. retail sales of marijuana, in billions of dollars

Number of hours of Ravi Shankar music I listened to while writing certain chapters


Approximate number of onion rings Lyle eats in a scene with Earl Williams

Number of times I use a form of the f-word

Gosh, is profanity the right word?


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:**


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