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.

19 thoughts on “Sex, violence and swearing in crime fiction

  1. Hunnymonster says:

    Swearing a part of everyday life? As a colleague of mine once said upon return to the office…

    “Fucking hell! I fucking got there and fuck me, some fucking fuckers fucking gone and fucking fucked the fucking fucker. The fucking fuckers!”

    Bonus points for spotting the missing expletives :)

  2. Squander Two says:

    I don’t understand why someone would write to the author to compain. You don’t like it, stop reading. A lot of people seem to go through life believing that the rest of humanity is there to cater to them.

    The thing that annoys me more than anything else in books or screenplays is unrealistic dialogue. Which isn’t the same as unreal dialogue: I’m always impressed by writers who can write swear-free dialogue which is convincing and natural enough that you simply don’t notice how absurd it is that this character wouldn’t swear. But, for instance, “Enemy At The Gates” is a well made film and a good engaging portrayal of the events and characters and completely fucking unbearable because of the weird decision by the filmmakers to eradicate every single abbreviation from the language — not a single “don’t” or “I’m” or “haven’t” to be heard. ITV’s memorable editing of “Robocop”, replacing “bastard” at one point with “blaggard”. The trouble with this stuff is nothing to do with politeness and everything to do with suspension of disbelief.

    Jaroslav Hasek was getting these same complaints back in the 1920s. His response was scathingly dismissive.

  3. Squander Two says:

    By the way, interesting thing. There’s a bit of swearing in Patrick O’Brian’s books — be a bit weird if there weren’t any in the Royal Navy — but in some of the books it’s blanked out and in others it’s explicit. Same writer, same publisher, same readers. Odd.

  4. Gary says:

    > You don’t like it, stop reading.

    Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. And with ebooks, you don’t even need to take a risk: Kindle and most other platforms let you download a free sample of the first fifth to tenth of the book. If you’re the sort of person who gets upset by swearing, the answer’s simple: try before you buy.

    Not that that would stop anyone, mind you. Billingham’s complainer got the book for free.

    > replacing “bastard” at one point with “blaggard”.

    Ah yes. Melon farmers. Wasn’t that one of the Lethal Weapon films on ITV, or am I mistaking an urban myth for a memory?

    > Jaroslav Hasek was getting these same complaints back in the 1920s.

    People’s reactions to swearing are quite interesting, I think. In some cases there’s definitely a class element; in others, there’s the same hell in a handcart thinking that also gives you “music today’s rubbish, can’t hear the words, is that a boy or a girl” and so on. I suffer a bit from that, but I know that it’s a manifestation of my ageing. Which is why I’m not hounding Enter Shikari demanding they write some proper tunes :)

    I don’t buy Stuart McBride books because I felt the last one I read – can’t remember title – was a little too delighted by the nasty stuff, and I’ve often found myself appalled by the relish with which some novelists describe what their villains do to their female victims. I don’t know how much of that is because now I’m the father of a girl I’m more aware of such things, or if it’s because the writers are pushing things a bit too far, or if it’s that some writers are better at gore than they are at plot, or if it’s all of those things together. Whatever it is, I try to avoid it.

  5. Gary says:

    Heh. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not pro-swearing for the sake of swearing. Just finished watching The Hour, which was wonderful, and which wouldn’t have been so wonderful if everyone had been effing and jeffing. But if you’re doing realistic contemporary dialogue, that may mean dropping the odd f-bomb.

    I love the phrase effing and jeffing, btw :)

  6. mupwangle says:

    >>Wasn’t that one of the Lethal Weapon films on ITV, or am I mistaking an urban myth for a memory?

    Die Hard. It was the “yippeekayay melon farmers” line. Not sure if it really happened though.

    There’s quite a lot of inappropriate censorship on TV that just draws attention to the language. Some of it is just baffling. 2 and a half men, on Comedy Central, bleeps out words like “ass” and “bitch” but allows comments about oral sex during the day then the next program (again mid afternoon) is an uncensored Sex and the City.

  7. Tony Kiernan says:

    I do believe the Die Hard one is kemo-sabe

    To the best of my knowledge melon-farmer originated in Repoman, where Alex Cox actually had a hand in the ‘clean’ version and apparently had a great time with the actors coming up with stuff to use. Purpotedly they picked the term from the Bronson movie of Elmore Leonard’s Mr Majestyk, about a melon farmer

  8. Stephen says:

    Yes, obviously you don’t want to make the mistake of thinking that the writer enjoys something just because he is able to write about it so well. But sometimes you do start to wonder what kind of mind could actually think that up, and then be able to keep it in mind for the time it takes to lovingly craft the prose that describes it. Some of Ian M Banks’ stuff made me wish for mind bleach. Not that I ever wrote to him to complain, mind. (Partly because I didn’t want him to know where I live.)

  9. Squander Two says:

    > if it’s that some writers are better at gore than they are at plot

    That’s it, definitely. A good writer can get away with alot of truly disturbing nastiness if it genuinely advances the characters and plot. MMS springs to mind. You find yourself just wanting to put the thing down and have a shower when there’s no reason other than enjoying the sadism to keep reading.

  10. mupwangle says:

    >>I do believe the Die Hard one is kemo-sabe

    It could be, but I have found video of one of the US dubbed versions where it’s “Yippiekayay Mr Falcon”. :-)

  11. Heather says:

    I had a similar reaction to reading the reviews for the nonfiction book “Griftopia” by the author Matt Taibbi. He’s a well known non-MSM journalist who has been exposing what the MSM won’t for well over a decade, and his style is very blunt, frothy, and irreverent. “Griftopia” exposes everything that the American banking system and government has done to fuck up everything for everyone in the past 20 years. And people are offended not by the content, but by Taibbi’s language. Yeah, the mortgage scam thing, Alan Greenspan, Goldman Sachs, they were awful, but shucks, that man sure does curse a lot! That’s not very nice!

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