Warning: Contains Language
Is strong language an essential component to hardboiled crime fiction, or was the sexual tension of noir amplified because at the time, the writers had to rely on double entendre? I’ve read many reviews by readers who stopped reading a book because of foul language. And two of the biggest venues for crime fiction have an unspoken (at least in their guidelines) rule that crime must be kept PG-13.
But let’s face it, criminals and those disposed toward violence have poor impulse control, and it is only realistic that their language would be as peppered with profanity as their victims faces are with punches. And not to get in a cozy vs. hardboiled debate, because my Grandma could curse with the best of them, and she taught me to crochet. (I had to keep the line going while she stirred the gravy, see.) I’m reading Paul Cain’s FAST ONE right now, and when he called a bunch of double-crossers rotten —- ——-, I realized this was de rigueur for 1933. I felt sorely tempted to submit a story full of em dashes where my character’s colorful dialogue used to be. And I may still do so. I invite you to do it, as well.
The FCC is currently debating whether an excited award-winner dropping the F-bomb on primetime network television is deserving of a fine, but an actor portraying a heroic soldier in our mythical Spielberg version of World War II is allowed to, because this is art. Art that doesn’t offend us, because we’re too distracted thinking Tom Hanks sure came a long way from that show where he wore fake tits all the time. Now, Bono isn’t my favorite musician, but why is his “fuck” offensive when Mr. Bosom Buddies’s is not? Oh, context. Even the tight-asses at the FCC understand that in a certain context, a fuckity fuck fuck fuckaroo is allowable, but some fans of crime fiction do not.
And I say, they want to eat their rape and have it too.
If you want to read about murder, rape, armed robberies, knitting needles jammed up the ying-yang, whether tastefully off-screen, so we never see the congealed blood in said ying-yang, or explicit in your face full automatic knitting needle launchers firing point blank up dowager doody holes, in my mind, you lose the moral high ground in taking umbrage at the odd shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits as you tiptoe through the tulips in the greenhouse of mayhem that is crime fiction.
Does all crime fiction need foul language? Heavens no. Sometimes I revel in it (“Fucked,” at Pulp Metal Magazine) and other times I eschew it (“The Last Sacrament,” at Shotgun Honey) but generally if the Foo shits, I wear it. In “Black-Eyed Susan,” there is a little cussing. But it is not overdone, and it fits the character, I think. I write about angry people, and they are not always chilling and cold, often they have explosive tempers. I find it disingenuous to be offended by language and at the same time, titillated by violence.
Lawrence Block ran into similar prudishness when he wrote Small Town, an excellent drama of New York’s mayor in the post-9/11 era. Readers who loved his incorrigible burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr (who has tiptoed over more corpses in his crepe soles than the lead in a Peckinpah ballet) were offended by a character in Small Town who gets his balls shaved by a dominatrix. If he’d accidentally cut himself while ball shaving, bled to death, and Bernie was accused of murdering him while robbing his bejewelled cock ring collection, it would have been okay, I suppose. (I love Bernie, Mr. Block. You’re welcome to use that set-up for the next novel, The Burglar Who Castrated Cagliostro). James Crumley, in an excellent interview posted on this blog [Ed note: top plug, Tommy], only mentions getting hate mail regarding his use of the word “fuck.” Fuck that.
Deadwood was great fun, but it bothered a lot of people. Has every Western become as profane? No. Breaking Bad shows that you can have a great crime drama without the nudity, blood and profanity of Boardwalk Empire (which I also love). There is room for both. Cuss words won’t make a crappy hardboiled story better, but removing them from a great story can destroy it. Watch the TV cut of Goodfellas, if you don’t believe me. That, my friend, is what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps. Do you have to like swear words? No. But are you truly offended by them? If so, I’d hate to see how you react to injustice.
I’ll give you something to be offended about:
If we spent as much money fighting that as we do fighting doody words on television, the world would be a much better place. And if it does offend you, put your money where your mouth is. Lost Children: A Charity Anthology to Benefit PROTECT and Children 1st, is available in paperback and all e-book formats here:
I will warn you. You will find offensive language. You will find cruel vengeance. You will read stories, that according to hardboiled legend Wayne Dundee, are “are equally haunting and powerful and as painfully timely as today’s headlines.” And if it moves you to act, to join PROTECT or donate to Children 1st, then every swear word in that book is worth it.
THOMAS PLUCK lives in New Jersey and hates Bon Jovi. He used to work down the docks, like that Tommy in the Bon Jovi song. And everyone has to remind him. His stories have appeared in Shotgun Honey and Flash Fiction Offensive; he has upcoming stories in Crimespree and Beat to a Pulp. He practices mixed martial arts and gator wrasslin’ when he’s not hard at work on his novel.