Nostalgia City Mysteries

By Mark S. Bacon

Category Archives: suspense novel

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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Avoid the shadows when night falls

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Nightfall
David Goodis
170 pages
Black Curtain Press  1947
$8.49 paperback    Kindle $  .99

James Vanning is lonely, depressed, afraid and plagued by insomnia.  In other words he’s a classic protagonist in a noir novel.

The commercial artist and World War II vet is on the run from the police and a gang of bank robbers.  He’s holed up in a small New York City apartment selling his work to ad agencies to get by and feeling sorry for himself.  As an average guy entangled in a seemingly unexplainable criminal morass, he could be a character in a Cornell Woolrich novel.  Instead he’s the creation of another respected noir author, David Goodis, noted for his mystery, Dark Passage, that became a Bogart and Bacall movie.

In Nightfall, published in 1947, Goodis imperils Vanning without letting the reader know too many details.  Except for one thing: he’s killed someone, or is convinced he did. And, he’s scared.

 “He wanted to go out.  He was afraid to go out.  And he realized that.  The realization brought on more fright.”

A few sentences later a Woolrich-style premonition: “…something was going to happen tonight.”

Vanning knows that the story of the killing, as he remembers it, is so preposterous no cop or DA would believe him. We learn bits and pieces: A Seattle bank was robbed of $300,000.  One of the gang responsible for the robbery was murdered. The money disappeared.

The story unfolds through chapters of alternating points of view, that of Vanning and of Fraser, the NYC police detective following him.  Married with three children, Fraser (we never learn his first name) has been shadowing Vanning for months and thinks he knows nearly all aspects of the artist’s solitary life.  But he worries the case may be his undoing.  His superiors are calling for an arrest and return of the money.  And Fraser has doubts.

Despite overwhelming evidence against Vanning, Fraser thinks he might be innocent.  “With what they have on him already,” Fraser tells his wife, “they can put him on trial and it’s a hundred to one he’d get a death sentence.

“They’ve got witnesses, they’ve got fingerprints,” Fraser says, “they’ve got a ton of logical deduction that puts him dead center.  And what I’ve got is a mental block.”

Vanning’s faring no better.  His memory is full of holes.  He knows Continue Reading →

A kill switch by any other name: How about ‘Gone with the Wind’?

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Coming up with an appealing, intriguing title for a book can be a daunting task.  Years ago when I sold my first book—on business writing—I worked hard to create a clever title.  My publisher changed it. 

The expression about judging a book by its cover, and by extension its title, is a cliché because it’s what people do.  Think of the memorable books you’ve read and they probably had memorable titles.  Not always, but it helps.

When I was ready to send in the manuscript for my recently published mystery,  therefore, I threw myself into the work of creating a heart-stopping title.  Actually I’d been thinking about the title all the while I wrote the book, but now that it was finished, I brainstormed nonstop.  I also solicited help from writer friends, and Desert Kill Switch was the top choice.

Mostly out of curiosity, before I sent my manuscript to my publisher, I did a search for “kill switch” on Amazon.  I discovered that within the last four years no fewer than six mystery/suspense books have been released with the title Kill Switch or The Kill Switch, one from a famous New York Times best-selling author.

How can multiple new books have the same name?  Copyright protection does not extend to book titles.  I could have named my book Gone with the Wind.

Disappointed, I went back to brainstorming.   A friend and I came up with dozens of optional titles: Nostalgic Cars and Corpses, Desert Death Drive, Desert Death in High Gear, and on and on.  One of my favorite optional titles was Nostalgia City Road Kill.  Can you imagine, however, how many books have the words road kill in the title?

I took another look at the other six kill switch books. None seemed to talk about the kind of kill switch that’s the focus of my book. In fact, the words kill switch rarely appeared in the books. I was persuaded the other authors were not talking about the same kill switches I was.

So what is a kill switch?  In my book, it has to do with car sales.  A relatively small number of auto dealers in the US install GPS trackers and kill switches in the cars they sell to people they consider high-risk borrowers.  Here’s how it works:  Miss a payment, sometimes by as little as a few days, and the dealer throws a switch.  Your car is dead.  If you bring your loan current, you can drive again.  If you don’t, the dealer uses the GPS location and comes to get your car. No repo man needed.

I emphasize that a minority of dealers use kill switches, but news reports indicate that as many as two million cars on the road in the US are wired with the devices. 

These sinister-sounding mechanisms, and a dealer who uses them, are central to my book’s plot.  In addition, the book takes place across the arid landscape of Arizona and Nevada, hence, “Desert Kill Switch.”

I was ready to stick with Desert Kill Switch.  Until I thought about the word girl.

The suspense/mystery books Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train sold millions of copies and each quickly became a movie.  Maybe The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo started it, but regardless, girl has become popular in book titles. And not just a few, but dozens.

NPR recently explored the phenomenon. Crime novelist Megan Abbott told Morning Edition, “I have talked to other crime writers that have been urged by various professional people in their life to put the word girl in their title.”

Kill Switch Girl? Girl with a Kill Switch?

Maybe next time.

 

A thought on “A kill switch by any other name: How about ‘Gone with the Wind’?”

  1. Vanessa Shields
    I rather enjoy the title Desert Kill Switch – and I was fascinated when I learned what a kill switch – in the context of the story – actually was. Scary stuff. And that lent itself to ‘thrilling’ parts of Desert Kill Switch. I’ve read a few of the ‘girl-in-the-title’ books…and, I am definitely NOT moved to grab a book because the word ‘girl’ is in the title. Funnily enough – there are never ‘girls’ in the stories – but women – grown-up, killer ‘women’ or what have you. Huh. Book titles are wild animals in the jungle that is marketing for books. I think you made the right decisions, Mark! Now…if your title was Dessert Kill Switch…

    Like

  2. Troy Del Rio  9:33 a.m.      The Girl with her hand on the kill Switch.
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