Tuesday, February 23, 2010

You Can't Say That!!

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?


  1. In my crime novels I'm very careful that even though I use grisly details of murders, I don't use the F-word or much profanity at all. I am cautious not even to make racial or gender remarks.


  2. Ann - I'm exactly the same way! I really take pains not to use slurs or the worst profanity. A few slightly less offensive words slip out now and again, but I really don't use a lot of that kind of language.

  3. Margot- I an certain these books should be published as they were written and not sanitized for a modern readership. There was, and is, discrimination, racism and anti-Semitism and I don't think it should be brushed underneath the carpet by 'censoring' old books. People are so ignorant of what went on in the past that the left wing Guardian newspaper published an article on Senator Joe Lieberman stating that he was the beneficiary of a 10% quota of Jewish students at Yale, as if the quota was some kind of affirmative action.
    As far as modern books I definitely don't like reading offensive words, but unfortunately that is the way some people speak, and the writer is obliged to create a realistic ambience.

  4. There are 'old' books that make me cringe such as Arthur Upfield's 'Bony' series (an Australian series using an Aboriginal tracker/policeman as the protagonist which though ground breaking in some ways still has loads of racism and sexism and other offensive things). But I'd hate them to be re-published in some sanitised, politically correct version - that's the way people thought, acted and spoke in those times (this series started in the 1920's) and we can't simply clean up the ugly bits of our collective history and only display the bits of ourselves that reflect well upon us as that's untruthful and honestly I think it's dangerous too because we have to learn from our mistakes.

    As for crude language in modern books - I hate gratuitous anything (violence, sex, crude language, puppies...) but if there's a sensible context I can live with it. Denise Mina's book Garnethill has some fairly strong language but it suits the people and the situation and it did not offend me. Other books have ended up on my DNF pile because the language seemed to be included precisely because it was 'naughty' in the way that young children will use words they know to be bad because they know it will get a reaction from the adults around.

  5. Oh I had another thought. I wonder what future readers will make of the current trend towards extreme political correctness? Will they cringe or find it odd? What direction will language and story telling have taken in 50 or 100 years that might make people think some of our current books are strange. I read a book a couple of years ago where the author had gone to such great lengths to use very inclusive, non-specific terms that it wasn't clear to me until about 10 pages from the very end that the main character was Asian - I needed to know this because it had bearing on the story but I suspect the author (who it turns out was white) was scared of offending anyone but in the end did themselves a dis-service. I wish I could remember the name of the book now.

    I'll stop thinking and go to bed now :)

  6. Norman - You put that quite eloquently. Those deep-seated prejudices that underlie terms that we now call offensive do exist. They did at the time that classic crime fiction was published and they still do. To sanitize (I like that word!)the crime fiction of the time so as to pretend otherwise is to leave people in ignorance. To me, ignorance is not bliss. It can, in fact, be dangerous.

    I agree with you about profanity, too. I'm no prude, but I don't particularly care for very strong language. On the other hand, as you say, that's the way that some people speak. So some characters are bound to use offensive language. As long as the language makes sense given the character, it's not a problem. When it's gratuitous, it takes away from the story.

    Bernadette - I haven't read the Bony series, but from your description, it reflects its time. There was racism and prejudice (still is!) at the time that series was writen. To pretend otherwise is not only inaccurate, it could be dangerous. George Santayana wrote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," and he had a point. As you say, we learn from our past if we see it as it really was, not as we would have liked it to be. Besides, a story that takes place at a given place and time ought to reflect that place and time realistically in order for the story to be believable.

    You make an interesting point about crude language, too. It does seem that some authors use strong language for the purpose of getting a reaction. That gratuitous use of language takes away from a story. It's hard to concentrate on the plot when the language gets in the way. I agree with you that it all depends on the way the language is used and by whom. If it's appropriate for the characters and situation, it can work. Otherwise? Not so much.

    Excellent question, too, about where crime fiction is headed. Some people say that political correctness in language can go too far. You gave an interesting example, too (Sorry, though, your description doesn't sound familiar, so I don't know the book you mean). I think there is a balance between telling a good story (which may require making a character's ethnicity clear) and being offensive about it. It will be interesting to see whether writers make a habit of avoiding any mention of cultural identity just to avoid giving offense, and if they do, what that does to crime fiction. Interesting question....

  7. I accept the odd F word when reading,but never use it in my own work.
    It is interesting to read the changes in crime fiction over the years.

  8. Glynis - There really is a difference, isn't there, between the kinds of language we accept - sometimes even expect - in what we read, and the language we use when we write. I'm the same way. I've read many novels that use that F-word, and the use of it doesn't necessarily stop me from enjoying a book, But I do not use it when I write.

    I suppose it's because I'm a linguist, but I agree with you that it really is fascinating to see how the language used in crime fiction has changed. Or maybe it's just that I'm a crime fiction fan : ).

  9. I've thought about this issue long and hard since my WiP takes place in 1930s England. Attitudes were different then. Vocabulary choices were different then. The term 'politically correct' did not exist in speech or in thought. To be true to the time, I've tried to capture the attitudes both in speech and thought. It's the way it was - not the way we might want it to have been.

    As for profanity, I try to stay away from it. I may use the occasional 'damn' or other mild words, but the 'big bombs'? No. I consider it lazy writing. If a character is that upset or angry, I hope I can find other ways of expressing it rather than have them swear a blue streak.

  10. excellent books to read, enjoyed you way of writting and well layed out.
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  11. Elspeth - You know, I was thinking of you and your WIP as I planned this post. As you say, if a story is going to be authentic, then the attitudes and assumptions (and language) of the time period have to be reflected in the writing and dialogue. An historical mystery may not reflect the attitudes that we hold today, but it should reflect the atittudes of the time period.

    I agree with you, too, about strong profanity. I really don't use it, either, in my writing. It does take more creativity to show the same emotion without using the strongest profanity, and I like to exercise that creativity.

    Benbes - Thank you : ). You're very kind and I appreciate it.

  12. For once, my post got eaten and I forgot to copy it! Darn it. In short, I agree that the books should not be censored (as some have attempted). Also it will be fascinating to see what future generations regard as our own prejudices, as we probably have no idea of what they are (though PC surely can't last much longer).

  13. No matter what I read, I try to take the period and the circumstances under which the text was written into account. And of course I try to teach my students to do the same.

    I would expect to be chastised if I wrote about racism and such, but recently an elderly man criticized me for using the word ´snot´ in a story. I had to explain to him that it was natural to the main character, but I thought it was rather amusing that I could offend anyone by using a word that was common usage in my Christian (but working class) home in the country.

  14. Maxine - Oh, I've had that happen to me, too! It's so annoying to have one's posts "eaten," isn't it? I agree about censorship. Perhaps it's because I'm a writer (or maybe not), but my feeling is, especially in our modern world, there are plenty of ways for a reader to find out the gist of a book before s/he reads it. Readers who, for instance, are offended by profanity, or who don't want grisly descriptions, etc. do not need to buy (or borrow) and read books they consider offensive. I know, for example, that there are books I choose not to read because of their content.

    I wonder, too, what our idea of modern novels will seem like to future readers. I don't know if our attitudes will seem quaint and our currently-popular novels outmoded, but I wouldn't be surprised. I also wonder how future readers will go about reading. I know it's off-topic, but it does interest me to think about what new developments there will be in the technology of reading. Some people say that the Kindle and its ilk are just the beginning...

    Dorte - I had to laugh when I thought of anyone criticizing your writing something like word choice! It does go to show, though, that different people consider different things to be offensive.

    You're right, too. When we crime fiction, especially crime fiction from the past or historical mysteries, it is important to think about what we're reading in the context of the times in which it was written. Assumptions and attitudes do change greatly over time, so the time context does matter.

  15. I'm with those that want authenticity in the books they read. The world, both now and in the past, is made up of a wide variety of attitudes, viewpoints, prejudices, behaviours, and other things. Good writing should reflect at least some of that, otherwise it can seem contrived. Or 'sanitised', and either can pull the reader out of the story.

    On the flipside, too much foul language, violence or sex etc (and we all probably have different ideas about what is too much, depending on our background, personal experiences, and viewpoints etc), can also pull the reader out of the story.

  16. Craig,
    I like your focus on authenticity. You're exactly right that different cultures, times and people have different attitudes and assumptions. We may find them objectionable, but they are many and varied. When those attitudes are not reflected in writing, it can seem to distant from reality. As you say, good writing reflects actual belief systems and the words that go with them. Good writing keeps readers engaged.

    Good writing also entails a strong plot, solid characters, and the like. Anything (including gratutious profanity, violence, sex, or slurs) that takes away from that also takes away from the quality of the writing. As you say, everyone has a different view of what constitutes "gratuitous", but the writer does best who focuses on the plot and characters as the top priority.