In this latest guest editorial on writing mysteries, Rob takes up a more controversial topic than in his first post on the film, Chinatown (which, I’m pretty sure, uses a fair amount of blue language; I’m just saying). Foul language in crime fiction–not to mention graphic scenes of sex and violence–is pervasive. But is that a must-have part of the genre? Rob says, not really.
Rob Avery is an attorney in Utah who has written two full-length mysteries that will be published this year. He practices law to pay for his addiction to ocean sailing and writes books because he’s bored by television.
The “F” Word
When I was a Scoutmaster, I used to scare the boys’ parents by telling them I loved the “F” word and used it a lot. Then I would explain that “F” stood for “fun.” Now, I am writing fiction—some of it rather hard-boiled—and I am confronted with certain choices to make in dialogue.
I’ll be straight up with you. I don’t care much for foul language. Call me a prude (assuming a guy who was raised in southern California during the 1960s and 70s could possibly qualify as such), but some of the language I see in print grates on raw nerves and diminishes the experience for me. So, I don’t feel compelled to write it.
Some have told me that truly foul language must be included in my writing to be realistic. I disagree. The emotions exhibited by a book’s characters and their reactions to tense situations need to be realistic and believable—and, perhaps, violent—but a good writer should be able to convey those emotions and reactions without resorting to the basest levels. I believe that one can have high standards without losing realism. But how is that done?
There are a couple of ways. Raymond Chandler did it rather obviously in The Big Sleep. When Marlowe catches the boy who murdered Brody, they have a little chat which reveals the boy’s limited vocabulary.
“You must have thought a lot of that queen,” I said.
“Go—-yourself,” the boy said softly, motionless between the parked cars and the five-foot retaining wall on the inside of the sidewalk.
…and then later,
“This is a small gun, kid. I’ll give it you through the navel and it will take three months to get you well enough to walk. But you’ll get well. So you can walk to the nice new gas chamber up in Quentin.”
He said: “Go—-yourself.”
“You’re a simple-minded lad. What’s your name?”
“Carol Lundgren,” he said lifelessly.
“You shot the wrong guy, Carol. Joe Brody didn’t kill your queen.”
He spoke three words to me and kept on driving.
We all know what word Chandler replaced with the four dashes. He made a fairly weak attempt to conceal it. But Chandler did. And there should be no question as to what “three words” Lundgren spoke to Marlowe as he kept on driving.
There are other ways. In a not-so-rare form of self-aggrandizement, I’ll use my own writing in Broad Reach as a sterling example.
“No hard feelings, eh?” he said.
“I didn’t say that. I didn’t say that at all. Truth is, if you ever see me again, you oughta run as fast as you can in the opposite direction.” I stepped closer to him for emphasis. “Because if I see you first, Ronnie—and I don’t care where we are or who I’m with or who is watching—I will beat you to death with whatever is handy. Have you got that straight?”
He swallowed hard and nodded his head. I reached down and grabbed him by his shirt and shorts and heaved him overboard. He swam for the shore and swore at me in clever combinations as if it were his sole creative outlet and his greatest source of pride.
Okay, I could have written “Go—-yourself” but I’m trying to be a little more subtle. Why bother? Well, the fact is, I just don’t care for a lot of blue language. Your kid might pick up a hard-boiled thriller by mistake and you, as a parent, might not appreciate the newly acquired vocabulary that he can now share on the playground at P.S. 37.
And while I am firmly established on my curmudgeon’s soapbox, there’s a bunch of other stuff that creeps into genre fiction for which I have no appreciation. While I don’t mind a graphic fist fight or a good descriptive killing (bring on the bloody knives or the long distance sniper shot), especially if the slain party truly deserves it, I don’t like and won’t read stories that lay out the details of pedophilia, child abuse, or torture of/cruelty to animals.
In my opinion, shock words and blue language are the cheater’s way to entertain. Work at describing a scene without all the easy and cheap stuff. It will make you a better writer.
 Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep (New York: Random, 1988)