Crime fiction, like any other fiction, very often reflects the culture and times within which it’s written. Language and topics that are considered acceptable for a given time and place are written into the crime fiction from that time. Language and topics that are considered offensive generally aren’t. Thanks to a very interesting post and comment exchange with Norman from Crime Scraps, I’ve been thinking about how the language, especially, of crime fiction has changed over time, and how it has reflected the social attitudes of the times.
One major change in the language of crime fiction has been in the use of racial and ethnic slurs. Classic crime fiction includes many, many references that today, people might find offensive. For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Yellow Face, Holmes investigates the strange behavior of Effie Munro, whose husband, Grant, seeks Holmes’ advice on what the secret is that seems suddenly to have come between this otherwise loving husband and wife. Effie’s odd behavior coincides with the arrival of a strange family in the Munros’ neighborhood. Munro doesn’t know much about the new arrivals, but he sometimes sees an odd-looking yellow face looking out of the windows. As it turns out, Effie Munro’s mysterious behavior is connected to the new arrivals. Towards the end of the story, one of the characters is described as, “…a coal-black negress,” a term that many would consider offensive today.
We see a similar use of slurs in Ellery Queen’s mysteries. For instance, in The Roman Hat Mystery, Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, are investigating the poisoning murder of disreputable lawyer Monte Field. In the course of the investigation, the Queens have several conversations about the case, many of which take place at their home. In that setting, we meet their houseboy, Djuna. Djuna, who’s nonwhite, is described in disparaging terms in more than one place in the novel. For instance, at one point, Sergeant Velie telephones the Queens to give Inspector Queen some important information. When Djuna answers the telephone, Velie calls him a “…son of a gypsy policeman.”
Agatha Christie, too, used terms that today would be considered offensive. For instance, in Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot investigates the stabbing death of wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett while he’s en route to Paris on the world-famous Orient Express train. In the course of the investigation, Poirot finds that Ratchett’s death might be connected to an earlier kidnapping and murder case. One of the characters in that earlier case committed suicide because the police had suspected her involvement in the kidnapping. When Poirot brings that up to one of the other passengers on the train, that passenger agrees that Ratchett’s murder might be revenge for that suicide. Since Ratchett’s been stabbed, this passenger assumes that an Italian might be responsible, saying,
“She [the dead girl] was a foreigner of some kind. Maybe she had some Wop relations."
That particular novel includes other derogatory ethnic references as well.
Christie’s other novels also use ethnic references that would, by today’s standards, be considered offensive. In several novels, for instance, black characters are referred to as “coloured.” In Christie’s day, that was simply a descriptive term, but by today’s standards, it’s often considered an insult. Other groups are also referred to in what’s now considered a derogatory way. For example in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot investigates the stabbing death of retired manufacturer Roger Ackroyd. Almost all of the members of his household come in for their share of suspicion, since all of them were in need of money. In fact, Ackroyd’s widowed sister-in-law had borrowed money from moneylenders she claims are Scottish, but another character says,
“…I suspect a Semitic strain in their ancestry.”
In The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), Poirot investigates the shooting death of successful Harley Street doctor John Christow, who was murdered while he was spending the week-end with Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. One of Lucy Angkatell’s cousins, Midge Hardcastle, works in a dress shop for a woman she describes as
“…a Whitechapel Jewess with a voice like a corncrake.”.
There are other examples of terms like this that today, we might consider offensive. One question we might ask is, “Should that matter?” Can we call a piece of literature classic crime fiction when it includes references such as these that may be offensive? One option is to delete those references or change them. That’s what happened when The Hollow was released as Murder After Hours. In that version of the novel, the line I just referred to has been changed to,
“…a Whitechapel woman with a voice like a corncrake.”
The title of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None was changed, too, to reflect changing sensitivities. It was originally released as Ten Little Niggers, and as Ten Little Indians. For obvious reasons, the first of those two other titles was dropped.
Another option is to do nothing. Most people who are fans of classic crime fiction are aware that fiction reflects the culture of the times during which it’s written. People who support this idea say that changing titles and lines in books amounts to censorship.
What’s interesting to consider as we think about what’s considered acceptable as times change is that language and its use evolves over time. Language is not static. That’s in part because culture also changes. We see a fascinating discussion of this in Donna Leon’s The Girl of His Dreams, in which Commissario Guido Brunetti investigates the supposedly accidental death of Ariana Rocich, a Rom girl who’s fallen from a roof into a canal. In a very interesting conversation, Brunetti is talking with Doctor Rizzardi, who’s examining Ariana’s body. He asks Rizzardi if the girl is a gypsy, and Rizzardi’s response is,
“We call them Rom now, Guido.”
As the population of Roms in Brunetti’s Venice has increased, and the culture has changed, language use has changed, too, and Brunetti is faced with his own feelings about the word, the group to which it refers, and the concept of political correctness.
The process of language evolution works the other way, too. Words and phrases that were once taboo are used very freely in today’s crime fiction. I’m sure we could all think of examples from books we’ve read. I’ll just offer one. In C.J.Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye, Jack and Melissa McGuane’s lives are shattered when they’re informed that Garrett Moreland, the biological father of their adopted daughter, Angelina, wants her back. They are given twenty-one days before they have to release her to his custody and Jack resolves to do whatever he has to do to find out why the biological father is suddenly so interested in getting custody, and to prevent this devastation if he can. Along the way, Jack calls in several favors and enlists the help of several friends, including a police officer, Cody Hoyt. At one point, Cody’s referring furiously to Judge Moreland, the baby’s biological grandfather, who’s doing everything in his considerable power to prevent the McGaunes from keeping Angelina. Cody says,
“That motherf____er!’ Cody hissed. “I’d like to go back in there and cap him.”
“No…“Moreland. He f___ed me. He just f___ed me. And he f_____ed the families of all those kids”
It’s a very interesting example of the way that times and cultures influence what’s in print. Today’s cultures don’t readily welcome ethnic, racial and other slurs that were once used as a matter of course. But profanity is more acceptable than it was, and words that were once unthinkable are used commonly.
What’s your view? What do you think of classic crime fiction that uses words that are now considered offensive? What about modern crime fiction? What do you think of crime fiction that uses language that many people might find offensive? Is language use one of your “barometers” for choosing or not choosing to read something?