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Foul Language in Crime Fiction

by | Mar 11, 2021 | Latest News | 8 comments

I originally wrote all about this topic in one of my email campaigns. My readers appeared to enjoy it even if a small minority didn’t agree with all I wrote. I thought I would share it to a wider audience. 

In crime fiction, foul language is justified on the ground that it is lifelike.” NY Magazine, June 3 2011.

And the same article Ode to a Four-Letter Word by Kathryn Schulz commences with ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” the poet Philip Larkin declared in “This Be the Verse.”

Before you decide to read any further – a warning. If you are offended by so-called foul language, it’s probably best if you stop reading right here and now. Indeed, if it offends you so much, I promise I will not be offended if you unsubscribe from my mailing list because my books will probably not be “your cup of tea.”

I do justify the use of “foul language on the ground that it is lifelike” in crime fiction. I justify using it in dialogue or as part of an internal monologue (thoughts of the character). Some of the words I use in my books are better described as expletives not profanity. Profanity means showing no respect for a god or a religion, especially through language.

You may ask what prompted me to write about this topic. A review, of course. It’s getting tiresome for a reviewer to dock stars from the rating and mention the use of “profanity.” Tiresome? Yes, though it’s probably only happened about four times. If you are that reviewer, don’t take this personally. It’s not an attack on you, please accept that. If my books are not for you, so be it. Just unsubscribe from my mailing list.

I possibly read that review on an emotional low. One of my VIP Review Team recently lost her son in a tragic road crash. I feel greatly for her loss and though it’s nothing compared to what she is going through, it has shaken me up.

“Foul” or “bad” language is justified for the sake of realism in fiction. It all depends on the context and the fictional characters involved. I can imagine a Godly man, perhaps a preacher, talking to a prostitute (don’t tell me that has never happened), and inquiring about fees for the services she provides. I can imagine that dialogue without the use of four-letter words. On the other hand, imagine a Glasgow or Liverpool docker (substitute New York or any American port stevedore) in the same scenario. Can you seriously imagine that conversation without the use of “fuck” or “shag” and possibly “blow job”? And imagine if she (the prostitute) is a hopeless loser addicted to heroin, wouldn’t she cuss and swear just like her potential client? I think so.

Through my fourteen years as a detective, fourteen years as a criminal trial lawyer, and my numerous other jobs such as truck driver, motor cycle courier, and heavy plant operator, I do think I have a good handle on how people really express themselves. People from all walks of life. It’s not only men who swear. As a young man and new to the capital, I was both shocked and fascinated when I discovered many young women from London’s East End swore more than many men did. I also soon found out Britain’s upper-class toffs do their fair share of effing and blinding.

That brings me to another point – we are all different and have been raised in different parts of the world in different circumstances. I respect it if any individual is offended by foul language. That is who they are and part of their conditioning. However, I do wonder why they choose to read adult books intended for an adult audience such as mine. No one in their right mind would look at my books, the descriptions, and the covers and think they were YA or cosy mystery books. My books are full of detectives with flawed characters, outlaws, gangsters, hoodlums, and some sexy women (some of whom curse.)

If Matt Deal is facing a life and death situation, do you think he would say, “Excuse me, old chap, please drop that gun?” I think it more likely Deal would shoot the hoodlum dead, then say something like, “Worthless piece of shit.”

Can “foul language” be funny? In my opinion, yes. Take the movie Four Weddings and A Funeral for example and I quote:

Film (1994): As the audience members at that Salt Lake City screening know, the original Four Weddings and A Funeral gets off to a flying start with using profanity. In fact, the first five words of real dialogue are “fuck”, which is soon followed by a “fuckity fuck” and “bugger”. This, of course, all occurs as Charles (Hugh Grant) and Scarlett (Charlotte Coleman) rush to their first wedding of the film, which they are very late for, and the swearing is brilliantly effective in conveying that frantic sense of dread that falls over you when you wake up far later than planned.

That mention of Salt Lake City is an acknowledgement that audience members even walked out of a screening in Salt Lake City thanks to the opening scene’s frequency of fucks – and yet it still managed to get two Oscar nominations, four Baftas and a Golden Globe award.

A further example of the use of the word ‘fuck’ being funny (kind of) was told to me by a police officer colleague many years ago. He was stationed at Kirkby, a large Liverpool overspill town, as I was. He had a four-year-old boy who mixed with the other kids in his street. Upon a visit from grandma, when the boy was asked how he was, the rascal simply said, “Fuck off!” He didn’t know its meaning but had picked it up in the street from his playmates. I later inquired of my colleague how his mother had reacted to this episode. He made me laugh once more when he said, “I told her it was better than being fucking deaf.” Kirkby is a tough town where expletives are commonplace just like the area I was raised in not too far from Kirkby. Having said that, I not once heard my parents use bad language. I learnt all my early swear words from school and friends.

One of my favourite examples of a funny scene from TV or movies is that of the “fuck scene” in HBO’s The WireBelieve me, as a former detective that scene has all the hallmarks of realism.

I also believe American and British attitudes to swear words are quite different. We Brits are more relaxed overall with swearing. I suppose that’s no surprise as “fuck” is an Anglo-Saxon word circulating in England before America existed. The Scots have made swearing an art form. I am given to understand that native New Yorkers and Chicagoans try to outdo each other in the swearing stakes. That may be so, but I love this apocryphal story of the New Yorker on seeing a female pedestrian lose her purse while crossing the street who yelled, “Lady! You’ve dropped your fucking purse.”

These two Scribendi articles on the use of swear words in literature are worth reading. I recommend them:

Part One

Part Two

I would never dream of coming into your home and using any form of bad language but in contrast, when you come into my make-believe world of fiction, they are my rules and I refuse to be censored.

Not everyone will like my books. I get that. I accept it. Gladly, many do, and they are the readers, with the VIP Review Team at its core, who I do my utmost to entertain in a genre they love and characters they have come to know.I am nothing without you guys. Once upon a time, I would have posted this as a blog post on my author website but never know who has read it. I’d rather let you readers know directly about my thoughts on this prickly subject as I am doing my best to create a long-term relationship with the core of my readers.Thank you for reading to the end.

8 Comments

  1. Eleanor Andersen

    I think I replied to a similar post on your website a while ago, when I said that there are times when it’s necessary, in fiction. Don’t use strong words myself, and detest it when I hear them coming from children, but in a book, no problem.

    Reply
    • Stephen Bentley

      First time on my website. I think you read it in one of my reader emails but thanks for leaving your comment, Eleanor.

      Reply
  2. Kaaren

    I think the language goes with the stories. Agree with you that it is lifelike and cant imagine a dock worker or construction worker or other groups not talking without language. Even a good erotic romance needs the word fuck and others to be realistic.

    Reply
    • Stephen Bentley

      Kaaren, well said. As I totally agree, there’s no more to be said.

      Reply
  3. L Lee Kane

    Cursing has never bothered me, depending on the situation of course. At a tea party…I don’t think so. In the streets, in a gritty situation, absolutely.
    I worked for a bit in real estate, working on large projects with builders, contractors, and sub contractors. My language was certainly not the same as if I were at a tennis club…unless I lost the match. 😊

    Reply
    • Stephen Bentley

      Thanks, Linda, I love the line about losing at tennis 🙂

      Reply
  4. Marmalade

    Swearing in books doesn’t bother me as I think it’s something we hear more and more in every day use, especially living in Scotland lol.

    Reply
    • Stephen Bentley

      Good to hear! Scotland is not alone in that, as I’m sure you know. Swearing in fiction or non-fiction is all part of authenticity and depends on the characters and the setting. If it’s a book aimed at an adult audience, I don’t see that there’s an issue. If as an adult, you don’t like it then don’t read it.

      Reply

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