About Me

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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Cheaper the Crook, the Gaudier the Patter

A writer friend of mine, Les Edgerton (the author of The Rapist and Just Like That), recently did a blog post about a conflict with newspaper outlets about the title of one of his novels that was re-released last year.

The book in question is The Bitch, a story of a habitual criminal. The “Bitch” of the title is inmate slang for a repeat offender who will receive a life sentence if convicted of a third felony.

The outlets expressed reservations about using the title in the review because many people see “Bitch” as a toxic put-down of women, despite the fact that the word is used thirty times a night on prime time TV and was the title of a book by Jackie Collins that subsequently was turned into a movie starring her sister, Joan.

Les has written at length about the dispute in his blog, and his post is worth reading on its own (as are the other items in his blog).  I won’t offer a judgment on his book for the simple reason that I haven’t read it yet (honest, Les – it’s one of the 70 or 80 titles on my TBR list!) 

Les Edgerton
But I have some specific observations I would like to share about the conflict over the title, simply because I have strong feelings about the use of words and phrases drawn from the background of characters – particularly criminals, prison inmates and law enforcement officers. 

This particular dispute involving Les reminds me of some of the continuing chatter among writers about readers and reviewers who give them low star ratings on GoodReads or Amazon because their fiction contains coarse language -- specifically terms relating to bodily functions or sex acts. Many readers -- and some critics -- complain about the language used by fictional characters, accusing the authors who created them of having perverse attitudes or potty mouths.

I think this attitude is misdirected. Writers don't generally have obscenities emerge from their characters' mouths because they want to shock or titillate. They damned sure don't stick them in their copy because they are the only words that they know,

They have their characters use these words and phrases to give a sense of their social class standing, education, life experience and a myriad of other bits of background. 

When defense attorneys in real life organized crime cases are trying to impeach gang-banging witnesses, they invariably point to their felony records and ask, "how can you believe these peoples' testimony? They are crooks who have committed terrible crimes."

Prosecutors often respond, "We are putting long-time criminals on the stand because gangsters don't usually do business with the Monsignor." 

Well, people in crime novels often use underworld slang, bad grammar and obscenity when they speak for the same reason: they are criminals -- killers, thieves, pimps, dope dealers -- not choirboys.

I believe that the artful use of slang, professional terminology or even obscenity is one of the most sure-fire ways to build a credible character in first-rate fiction of any type. This is particularly true of crime fiction. In a sentence or two an author can suggest an individual’s economic class, education, region of origin and age, simply by letting the character speak in his or her normal voice.

Say you are reading a book about the emergency room in a large county hospital. Which is more vivid: a nurse in scrubs who speaks in full sentences and uses a hemostat from the crash cart to stop a thoracic hemorrhage? Or a health care worker in a green uniform who stops the bleeding from a cut vein in the chest by using a clamp she takes off a roll-away table covered with medical gadgets?

Both describe the same thing; but by putting a character in “scrubs,” a particular type of medical uniform worn by members of a surgical team, the reader’s focus on the character is sharpened. The words "crash cart" and “hemostat” suggest specific types of medical equipment used by doctors and surgeons, and “thoracic hemorrhage” is medical jargon that identifies the character as somebody with technical training and knowledge of human physiology.

I would argue that the title of Edgerton's story, "The Bitch," has power specifically because it is drawn from the argot of prison inmates who have developed an extensive vocabulary that is both colorful and evocative. Used correctly and judiciously, this language -- much like artfully drawn regional dialect, contemporary slang or professional terminology -- flags the character's background, socialization and past experiences in a way that would require a vast amount of backstory

In this case, Les has written a crime novel that takes its title from prison argot. The title contains a double entendre because a guy coming looking at his third felony flop will  probably spend the rest of his life inside – which would be a bitch, even without the prison slang reference. 

It’s the kind of title every writer wishes he or she had come up with: it underscores the central conflict of the story and does so by using language in a way that enhances the yarn’s believability. Failing to give the title because it might offend some readers does a disservice to Les and to his readers. To my mind, it is like avoiding the use of the word in the text of the novel to begin with: a violation of one of the basic techniques of story telling.

I have been exploring the ways characters use language in fiction for some time because I consider it one of the critical elements in demonstrating a fictional character’s personality. What characters say is important, but the way they say it is often even more important.

Consider The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain: the first time Frank and Cora attempt to kill Nick the Greek, a policeman shows up unexpectedly. The cop’s attention is attracted to a kitten climbing on the side of the building next to the ladder that is a key part of Frank's and Cora's homicidal scheme.
Frank (John Garfield) shares a moment with Cora (Lana Turner) in The Postman Always Rings Twice
Grinning, the cop says, “I love a cat. They’re always up to something.”
What is Cain doing here? First, he is using this simple statement to build suspense and create fear on the part of the reader that Frank and Cora are about to be found out.

It is a suspenseful moment in the book. The policeman’s guard is clearly down. Rather than concentrating on the ladder, he notices the cat. But Frank and Cora aren't aware his distraction makes him less of a threat. All they know is that he is looking up at the tell-tale ladder and might become curious about what it is doing there.

The cat observation is almost a literary magic trick. Cain has his policeman character refer to the animal ungrammatically, making the reference seem more natural and believable than if he had used standard English class grammar:  “I love cats. They’re always up to something.”

But the policeman's comment is much more than just clever writing. The conflict in noun-pronoun number (cat/they’re) tells us a lot about the cop in only two short sentences: he is friendly, relatively inarticulate, probably minimallly educated, likes animals and sees the humor in their behavior. His brief statement shows he is probably not a threat to Frank and Cora, but his potential for discovering the ladder and the rest of their unsuccessful murder plan remains high, at least to them. This creates a dramatic tension that keeps the reader turning pages.
The dialog when Private Detective Sam Spade confronts Kasper Guttman’s “boy,” Wilmer Cook, in the hotel lobby in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon has the same effect:
Spade (Humphrey Bogart) confronts Wilmer the gunsel (Elisha Cook Jr.) in the Maltese Falcon

Cook:  Keep on riding me and they're gonna be picking iron out of your liver.
Spade: The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.

In this brief passage, Cook tries to intimidate Spade by portraying himself as a tough guy who has access to a gun. He strings together two trite phrases to threaten the detective with violence. Spade’s response is the verbal equivalent of a sneer, simultaneously showing him to be adept at cracking wise while making it clear he isn’t remotely frightened by Cook’s threats: in his rejoinder, Spade almost dares Cook to take a shot at him.
Both passages are examples of what the Russian literary analyst Mikhail Bakhtin calls "heteroglossia" -- finding a voice for characters that uses their language and the referents of their culture. 
Mikhail Bakhtin

By judiciously using grammar and syntax based on their education, social upbringing, involvement in organized religion, past employment, etc., their words seem to spring from their experience, their lifestyles.

“For any individual consciousness living in it, language is not an abstract system of normative forms but rather a concrete heteroglot conception of the world,” Bakhtin writes in his book, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. “All words have the ‘taste’  of a profession, a genre, a tendency, a party, a particular work, a particular person, a generation, an age group, the day and hour. Each word tastes of the context and contexts in which it has lived its socially charged life; all words and forms are populated by intentions. Contextual overtones (generic, tendentious, individualistic) are inevitable in the word.”

This is no less true in crime fiction than any other literature in which the writer hopes to bridge the gap between reality and imagination. As Bakhtin writes, “The [writer] must assume a complete single-personed hegemony over his own language, he must assume equal responsibility for each one of its aspects and subordinate them to his own, and only his own, intentions. 

"Each word must express the [writer’s]meaning directly and without mediation; there must be no distance between the poet and his word. The meaning must emerge from language as a single intentional whole: none of its stratification, its speech diversity, versity, to say nothing of its language diversity, may be reflected in any fundamental way in his . . . work.”
Dashiell Hammett
This was precisely what Dashiell Hammett accomplished in his best stories. In his essay, "The Simple Art of Murder," Raymond Chandler, no slouch at the efficient use of language himself, singles out  Hammett as the crime writer who probably did more to reshape the genre than any other writer working in the hardboiled style.
Raymond Chandler
As Chandler writes: "Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare and tropical fish. He put these people down on paper as they were, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes." [Emphasis added].

“I doubt that Hammett had any deliberate artistic aims whatever,” Chandler writes. “He was trying to make a living by writing something he had firsthand information about. He made some of it up; all writers do; but it had a basis in fact; it was made up out of real things. The only reality the English detection writers knew was the conversational accent of Surbiton and Bognor Regis. If they wrote about dukes and Venetian vases, they knew no more about them out of their own experience than the well-heeled Hollywood character knows about the French Modernists that hang in his Bel-Air château or the semi-antique Chippendale-cum-cobbler's bench that he uses for a coffee table.
“Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley; it doesn't have to stay there forever, but it looked like a good idea to get as far as possible from Emily Post's idea of how a well-bred debutante gnaws a chicken wing.”

George V. Higgins
The best crime writers know this. George V. Higgins 
(The Friends of Eddie Coyle), who, as a prosecutor, probably spent as much time with professional criminals as any other writer in the game, knew this. His dialog reads like the transcript of a Title III wiretap -- probably because he spent so much time reading intercepts of criminals' aimless chat while working organized crime cases.

Elmore Leonard admits that he learned the principle from Higgins. James Ellroy, at his peak, seems to be working from the same playbook as Higgins and Leonard.

A writer with courtroom experience like pulp-master Erle Stanley Gardner understood the principle very well. His stories about Lester Leith, a gentleman criminal patterned on Raffles, the cricket-playing English burglar -- are as artificial as the drawing room slaying novels Chandler decries in his "Simple Art of Murder" essay. On the other hand, his greatest creation, Perry Mason, comes across as a real defense attorney -- albeit one with a supernatural knack for clearing his clients.

Even lesser lights than Gardner -- the Scott Turows and John Grishams -- manage to inject life into characters when they are invested with authentic voices based on Bakhtin's heteroglossia concept. 

Scott Turow
The title of Edgerton’s book, makes effective use of the principle. A publication that would exclude the title from a review of the book is failing to recognize it's significance as one of the author's key literary tools. 

In order to avoid offense, it is actually hampering the author's ability to do the job; in a case like this, the piecemeal censorship of words and phrases can be as damaging as a book's outright suppression. 


  1. Yet, it seems a recurring theme among some readers as well. A colleague of mine shared an anecdote where one of her readers asked why her main character cursed so much. She replied, “Because truck drivers usually don’t say, ‘gosh darn it’ when they’re angry.”
    Nice post.
    You too, Les.

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  3. Outstanding essay. I'm agree fully, though I could not have expressed it half so well. What irritates me more than anything is a conviction that those who are so offended by such use of language are a relatively small minority, but exert a disproportionate effect on the rest of us.