Nostalgia City Mysteries

By Mark S. Bacon

Category Archives: Thriller 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 trio of mystery, suspense, thrills

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Tahoe Payback  (Owen McKenna Mystery Thriller)
Todd Borg
352 pages
Thriller Press   August 2017
Kindle $4.99  Trade paper $12.34

The fifteenth Owen McKenna mystery at Lake Tahoe looks at scam charities. When a man tells Tahoe Detective Owen McKenna that his girlfriend disappeared, McKenna wonders if the woman got cold feet and ran away. But when she turns up murdered on Lake Tahoe’s Fannette Island with red roses in her mouth, McKenna discovers that she used a scam charity to steal millions.  A second victim is found with a tennis ball crammed into his mouth. A third has military medals in his cheeks. McKenna suspects that these victims also ran fraudulent charities.

While McKenna investigates the murders, his girlfriend Street Casey has reason to believe that her ex-con father, who’s jumped parole, wants revenge for her testimony that put in him in prison decades ago.  

It appears that the victims are all payback targets of a vigilante killer. McKenna finds lots of potential suspects. But he can’t link any of them to the crimes. What he doesn’t know is that both he and his girlfriend are about to face someone who wants them very dead.

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Tahoe local Todd Borg is the bestselling author of 15 Owen McKenna Mystery Thrillers. Borg’s novels have won the Ben Franklin Award for Best Mystery of the Year, made Library Journal’s Top 5 Mysteries of the Year list, received rave reviews, including a starred review in Library Journal, and made Amazon’s Mystery/Thriller and Private Investigator Bestseller Lists multiple times.   Borg’s books have over 500,000 paper books and ebooks in distribution.  He was selected as the toastmaster for the 2018 Left Coast Crime convention.

 

The Red Queen Rules: A Red Solaris Mystery Vol.3
Bourne Morris
246 pages
Henery Press   December 2016
Kindle $4.99  Trade paper $15.95

 This third installment of the Red Solaris series proves again that anyone who thinks a college campus is a haven of scholarship and civility hasn’t been paying attention.

Is it free speech or hate? When a white supremacist schedules an event on campus, University Dean Red Solaris must confront her own feelings about an issue that challenges the very core of American education: campus safety versus freedom of speech.

Amidst escalating tension, Red meets with the editor of the student newspaper – who also confides in Red that her young cousin is missing, probably a victim of local sex traffickers. Agreeing to rescue the girl, Red solicits help from her beloved detective Joe Morgan. But when Morgan goes undercover into the dangerous world of human trafficking, he disappears without a trace. Red must balance her fears for Morgan with her worries that a campus riot may soon break out.

The Red Queen Rules is also available as an MP3 CD.

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After Bennington College, Bourne Morris worked at McCall’s Magazine and then the New York advertising agency of  Ogilvy & Mather.  She rose through the ranks from copywriter to head of the agency’s Los Angeles office serving clients that included Mattel, Columbia Pictures, General Foods cereals and Baskin-Robbins.  Later she became a professor of journalism at the University of Nevada- Reno where she taught marketing communications and media ethics.  She was also chair of the university’s faculty senate where she learned about campus politics and tensions.

 

Illegal Holdings
Michael Niemann
230 pages
Coffeetown Press  Mar. 1, 2018
Kindle $6.95  Trade paper $12.37

UN fraud investigator Valentin Vermeulen is on assignment in Maputo, Mozambique. His ho-hum task is to see if Global Alternatives is spending UN money the way they promised. The nonprofit was set up by hedge fund mogul Vincent Portallis to revolutionize development aid. The only upside for Vermeulen is the prospect of seeing his lover Tessa Bishonga, who is reporting on foreign land acquisitions in Africa.

When Vermeulen notices that a five-million-dollar transfer has gone missing, he is given the run-around. First he is told the files have been mislaid, then stolen, then he is assured that the money was never transferred to begin with. But the money was transferred, so where is it now? Vermeulen’s dogged pursuit of the missing transfer makes him the target of some ruthless operators. And once he meets up with Tessa, she is inevitably sucked in to the story as well, which turns out to be far more nefarious than either of them imagined.

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Michael Niemann grew up in a small town in Germany, ten kilometers from the Dutch border. Crossing that border often at a young age sparked in him a curiosity about the larger world. He studied political science at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms Universität in Bonn and international studies at the University of Denver. During his academic career he focused his work on southern Africa and frequently spent time in the region. After taking a fiction writing course from his friend, the late Fred Pfeil, he switched to mysteries as a different way to write about the world.

Editor’s note:  Prices for the above books may vary depending on the retailer and when you access sales sites.  Click on the book covers for more information.

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