Sex, violence and swearing in crime fiction

I was at a book reading by Christopher Brookmyre and Mark Billingham a few weeks ago, and Billingham described some of the angry letters he gets from readers outraged that he uses the odd swear word – but not, it seems, outraged by some of the absolutely appalling things his villains do. It seems to be quite common in crime fiction: just last night, Allan Guthrie got a one-star review from somebody so outraged by the (minor) swearing in one of his books that they couldn’t continue.

I’ve said elsewhere that writers should consider whether swearing is necessary if it isn’t relevant or appropriate – if Mr Guthrie wrote gentle Victorian-era whodunnits and used language such as “it was Professor fucking Plum, with a fucking lead pipe, in the fucking study, the fucking sneaky fucking fucker” then that might be considered somewhat gratuitous – but he writes contemporary crime fiction and police procedurals.

You may not be aware of this, but policemen and women sometimes swear. Criminals too.

Ray Banks, aka The Saturday Boy, has an opinion about all of this.

Swearing is a vital part of human life, regardless of culture, and to indulge in vicarious murder as entertainment whilst eschewing the saltier language is nothing short of hypocrisy.

I read a lot of crime fiction, and I’ve lost track of the various horrible things crime writers describe – and by crime writers I mean mainstream, your-mum-reads-them crime writers, many of whom revel in detailed descriptions of the most terrible acts. If you can stomach that but not the word “fuck” then there’s something seriously fucking wrong with you.