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. . .

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Industrial Strength Pulp So Muscular You Have to Strain It Before Consumption

Dark Corners Pulp, Volume 1, Number 4
Edited by Craig and Emily McNeely
Double Life Books
Spring, 2015



As readers of this blog are aware, I like my literature as dark and hard-boiled as campfire coffee. I also love a good short story, so hardboiled anthologies and fiction magazines are right in my wheelhouse. The pulpier they are, the better I like them.

I’m not hard to please: I consider a collection in which I enjoy at least five stories to be an unmitigated pleasure. I am delighted to tell you that so many good anthologies of first-rate hardboiled literature are available these days, my pleasure is almost never mitigated.

One of the anthologies I always look forward to is Craig and Emily McNeely’s thumpingly good Dark Corners Pulp, a quarterly that offers the kind of spine-chilling thrills that first attracted me to hard-boiled and horror. Volume One, Issue Four, released July 31, is the McNeely couple’s latest offering, and it offers the discerning pulp fan the usual panoply of delights.

Craig and Emily McNeely
Here you will find such treats as the smirking femme fatale who cold-bloodedly kills two birdbrains with one stone in Will Viharo’s “Cool Reception;” or Heath Lowrance’s “The Good Step-Dad,” a chilling story about a man who literally believes that the quickest way to spoil his step-child is by sparing the rod.




Will "The Thrill" Viharo
We meet two of the dumbest criminals who ever bungled an execution-style murder in Rhys Ware’s “The Lady in the Trunk.” A bonus damsel in distress – a young woman who escapes from one kidnapper solely to be grabbed by a second – is the central character in Warren Moore’s  fast moving “Tips.”



Heath Lowrance: A tale of
questionable parenting?
Like cannibalism? Two of the stories in this collection boast people who partake of human flesh. Want twisted lovers? Dark Corners has stories by James Queally, Patrick Cooper, David Rachels, Adam Glasier and Tyrone Long that feature some of the most bent you’ll ever meet.

There’s invaders from space, a witch who clashes with Russian gangsters -- even a bad tempered parking control officer who exacts revenge from a one percenter who gives him attitude. (Note to the meter minder: watch old episodes of the Red Green show for tips on using duck tape).

Perhaps my favorite tale in the entire volume is “Mayej” by Dark Corners co-editor Emily McNeely, who spins a dryly understated yarn about a pair of tourists in South America that blow a bus connection and take shelter for the night with indigenous tribespeople who insist on having them for dinner. It is one of the most perfect short stories I’ve ever read – and believe me, I’ve read my share.

This stuff is so pulpy you really need to buy the $8.99 paperback. The $2.99 version for the Kindle reader is fine, but an eBook screen just doesn’t have the raw crudeness that real hardboiled lit requires. Fortunately, bursting at the spine with 18 stories and three reviews, the more expensive paperback comes to less than 43 cents per piece – a bargain even a retiree like me can afford.

As a kid first navigating short form fiction, I cut my horror and crime teeth on the old EC Comics: Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, Tales of Suspense and Haunt of Fear. They were my favorites – at least until they were forced out of business in a witch hunt engineered by Dr. Fredric Wertham, a quack psychiatrist who saw sexual perversity behind every bush and beneath every stone.

Wertham peddled his rabid comicophobia to parent’s councils, the simple-minded cretins in Congress and a Christian Taliban of right-wing religious fanatics. He believed comics caused delinquency, depravity and mental illness.
But if you looked past the lurid art, half-naked women, gruesome violence and dripping gore of the EC titles, each story published by the company was actually a twisted morality tale in which corrupted  innocence was avenged and evil was punished -- though often in an unconventional way.

Dark Corners specializes in the same sorts of tales. Each story is marked by transgression and revenge, a nightmarish cycle of grotesque mistakes that are only made worse by the protagonist’s attempts to correct them.


As I said before, right in my wheelhouse, folks. This magazine features my kind of literature! 

Friday, August 28, 2015

Patricia Abbott Serves Up an Angel That Boasts a Raven’s Black Wings



By Patricia Abbott
320 pages
( Polis Books; June 9, 2015)
ISBN-10: 1940610389
ISBN-13: 978-1940610382

 Any book that bluntly opens with the sentence, “When I was twelve, my mother shot a soda-pop salesman she’d known less than eight hours,” is going to be hard to put down.

This is doubly true of Concrete Angel, a grittily noir novel by Patti Abbott that was released this June.
The book bears a resemblance to James M. Cain's Depression-era noir masterpiece, Mildred Pierce.

But Concrete Angel is a reflection of Cain's novel as seen in a carnival sideshow mirror, sort of like the nightmarish maze where the final confrontation takes place in Lady From Shanghai: in Pierce, the mother breaks her heart trying to please her cold, unloving daughter; in Angel, the mother is the monster and the daughter, Christine, is her innocent victim.
The Angel of the book’s title is Eve Moran, neé Hobart, a shoplifter, hustler and thief raised by fanatically priggish parents whose only real emotions toward their wayward daughter appear to be shame and disgust.
From an early age, Eve hustles and connives, stealing from friends, relatives and neighbors before her graduation to pilfering from local shops. She stashes what she takes in a variety of hidey-holes, making her a hoarder as well as a kleptomaniac.

Concrete Angel is like a sideshow mirror reflection of Mildred Pierce, the James M. Cain masterpiece.

Unable to surpress her sociopathic personality, she marries well – scoring a husband, Hank, who is a military officer from a well-to-do family. Her excellent matchmaking, however, has little effect on her compulsions: she fails as a homemaker and mother, instead dedicating her time and talents to petty larceny.
For good or ill, her career as a thief is no more successful than her career as a domestic helpmeet: Eve is unable to plan her crimes in sufficient detail to avoid detection. Caught stealing on more than one occasion, she gains a reputation for trivial pilferage among the residents of her suburban community in the Pennsylvania countryside.
A one-day shoplifting binge at four upscale Philadelphia department stores, however, proves her temporary undoing and she is eventually committed to a mental institution to “treat” her compulsive criminality with talky therapy sessions.
A "relapse" afterward puts her in a less collegial facility where she is regularly subjected to drugs, insulin treatments and electroshock.
None of these treatments slow down her criminal behavior in the slightest.
Her antisocial actions lead her to more organized forms of criminality while her husband, repelled by her behavior, begins sleeping around.  When he discovers she is embezzling from a shop that is part of his family’s business interests – stealing from her kin in the process – he returns home to confront her with the evidence of her guilt and finds her in bed, boffing the psychoanalyst he has retained to treat her psychopathic behavior.
Soon after they divorce, Eve picks up a man, Jerry Santini, the soda pop-dealer referred to in the book’s first sentence, for a one-night stand. But Eve can’t even make it through the night without committing a mortal sin: when Santini returns from the bathroom and finds her taking money from his wallet, Eve empties a pistol into him, killing him immediately.

Eve shoots Jerry Santini after he catches her rifling his wallet: "Mother caught him in the chest, the ribs, the thigh; she emptied the entire chamber, in fact. He'd been shooting his mouth off when she started pulling the trigger."

Committing cold-blooded murder for a few dollars in spending money would be bad enough, but what follows is Eve’s greatest betrayal in the book: she sacrifices her daughter’s reputation and future by persuading her to take the rap for killing Santini.  
Christine, not yet in her teens, willingly complies.
“So I stepped in with my special skill set,” the adoring daughter tells us. “Saving Mother was something I was born to do. It had come into play with great regularity in my twelve years.”
Inured to serving as Eve’s scapegoat, “I badly needed someone’s help, someone who might shine a light on my relationship with my mother, tell me it wasn’t normal for a mother to see her daughter as someone to manipulate, to use. Such insight from a therapist skilled in breaking through a façade might have saved me years of pain.”
Unfortunately, despite the fact that her mother is the one with the record of repeated petty crimes, extended commitments to mental facilities and a lifetime of lying and cheating, the judicial bureaucracy accepts the fantasy that Christine has “accidentally” committed a homicide.
Forcing her daughter to take the fall for murder is not the last of Eve’s repellent acts, but it marks the end of her daughter’s unquestioning trust and the beginning of Christine’s rehabilitation as something besides a sacrificial lamb. 
Christine eventually learns that her psychotic mother is not the only one who has taken advantage of her gullibility and naiveté. As we discover in the final pages of the novel, the number of people who have enabled Eve’s psychopathic behavior – at the expense of her devoted daughter – is shocking.
By the end of the book’s 309 pages, the reader is more than ready to see Eve get her just deserts.  But this is noir, after all, which means no handcuffs, courtroom confrontations or long prison terms. Instead, when Eve’s past finally catches up to her, her comeuppance is satisfyingly unsatisfying.
The novel is framed from the perspective of Eve’s biggest victim, Christine, whom she has hopelessly seduced. The daughter’s indoctrination makes her willing to accept patently transparent explanations for heinous acts until the evidence of her mother’s illness is unavoidable.
For example, in referring to Eve’s obsession with petty thievery, Christine says blandly “She was perfectly willing to acquire things legitimately when the means presented themselves. It didn’t always work out, though, so she improvised.”
By telling the story from point of view of a victim who either can’t or won’t recognized her victimization, Abbott adds to its pathos and enlists the reader as Christine’s psychic ally.
The book is stuffed with period details that are so deftly rendered that the reader always knows the year. This is achieved not by piling on paragraphs of description, but by slipping in a few well-chosen words or a sentence or two.
In sketching Eve’s ill-starred shoplifting expedition to Philly, for example, Abbott writes that Wanamaker's, one of the department stores she visits, “was the emporium where dreams were made, boasting the largest organ in the world, which hovered over the Grand Court . . .[the color] Lilac was big – tiny checks, taffeta, cinched waists. Women mirrored Jackie Kennedy and Audrey Hepburn. The number of blondes had decreased since the presidential election two years ago. Suddenly brunettes, willowy thin, were in vogue.”
You can almost hear the rustle of fine fabrics and the rasp of nylon on nylon as wealthy women saunter through a fog of expensive perfume with their purchases.
Despite the grimness of the tale, Abbott manages to put a smile on the reader's face by sliding in some snappy repartee. In one passage, Eve quarrels with her husband about having his husky sister, Linda, (who Eve sneeringly refers to as “Tubbylinda “) stay with them. Eve is appalled and argues against the idea, fearing the real reason for the stay is for Linda to act as her chaperon. Hank ends the discussion by saying “Look, bear with me till things get straightened out. I have a lot on my plate.”
 “But not as much as your sister has on hers,” Eve snidely replies, a clear reference to Linda’s obesity.
Occasionally Abbott switches to Eve’s point of view so we can experience what she is thinking. At one point in the narrative, Eve unexpectedly kisses her shrink, the appropriately named Dr. Richard Cox. “His lips were drier than a snake’s would be if a snake had lips,” she thinks.

I have enjoyed Abbott’s short stories since I read “The Higher the Heels,” in issue eight of Todd Robinson’s excellent quarterly, Thuglit. I was even more impressed with her storytelling skill in Home Invasion, stories about a family of low-life grifters that are so intricately knit they read like chapters of a novel.
Patti – like Patricia Highsmith, Vicki Hendricks, Bonnie Jo Campbell and other practitioners whose writings are more cosh than cozy – is proof that women write hardboiled so well-cooked it could be sliced on top of a Cobb salad; she may sport a pair of cabretta leather gloves with feminine elegance, but be warned: she is really wearing them to keep her fingerprints off the blackjack she uses to smack her readers upside the head.
As a fan of her work, I was intrigued to see that a chunk of Concrete Angel had turned up earlier as part of her short story “A White Funeral” in Shotgun Honey Reloaded (Both Barrels), Issue 2.  It suggests that she, like Chandler, “cannibalizes” her stories looking for passages that would work in longer pieces.
That’s good; very good.

It means as long as she is writing great short tales for mags and anthos, there is a chance we will be seeing similar passages get recycled into terrific novels like Concrete Angel. I can hardly wait to read them.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

In Takeshi's "Outrage," 20 years of Japanese Economic Stagnation Have Rung Big Changes in the Yakuza Underworld



Directed by Takeshi Kitano
Starring Takeshi Kitano, Kippei Shiina, Tomokazu Miura, Ryo Kase, Fumio Kohinata.


In Outrage (2010), Otomo (Takeshi Kitano, who not only stars in the films but also directed them) is the equivalent of an underworld blue collar worker: an aging Yakuza soldier who heads a crew for one of Japan’s multifarious boryokudan syndicates.

He is a “punk” as one Yakuza calls him, a worker bee, not a boss. He more closely resembles Henry Hill in Wiseguys than Michael Corleone in The Godfather.

Otomo and Mizuno take out a rival
But even a worker bee has a sting. Otomo is a hard guy who serves as enforcer for Kato (Tomokazu Miura), the leader of one of the gangs in the powerful Sanno-kai, a fictional crime syndicate loosely based on the Yamaguchi-gumi, a real-life 

organization that controls the rackets in Japan’s Kanto plains.

He is a legitimate bad-ass: a former boxer and cold-blooded killer who shoots people as casually as if he was ordering a tall Kirin from a bar girl in Asakusa. Snake-quick to violence and unafraid of anyone, including his Yakuza masters, Otomo’s fearsome nature is concealed by his deadpan appearance – he never seems to become excited, regardless of how much violence is occurring around him.

Otomo (Takeshi Kitano)

His menace is implicit. In the film, Takeshi rarely raises his voice. He doesn’t have to threaten or shout: his violent reputation has won him grudging respect, even from gang leaders who refer to him as a punk in private.

At a Yakuza banquet that seems more a funeral than a celebratory gathering (for reasons that will eventually become clear), Otomo’s boss engineers the elimination of a lesser gang affiliated with a rival, Ikemoto (Jun Kunimura). The task falls to Otomo, who organizes an “autorage” (Outrage) designed to provoke a war in which one gang is eliminated and another brought under the tighter control of Sekiuchi, the Sanno-kai’s head (Soichiro Kitamura).

Yakuza drivers wait outside the funereal Sanno-kai banquet

Meanwhile, Detective Kataoka (Fumiyo Kohinata), a deeply corrupt police detective from the anti-gang squad, manipulates all sides of the dispute for his own advantage, taking bribes from the rival gang leaders and pushing his old associate, Otomo, to eliminate various people in ways that will earn him praise and promotions for his shrewd police work.

Detective Kataoka visits Otomo in prison
In some ways, what follows is a series of gang-war set pieces, incidents that escalate in violence and in which Otomo’s crew  is systematically eliminated while wiping out the other gang. Betrayal follows betrayal and Kato eventually rises to a position where he murders Sekiuchi and takes over the entire Sanno-kai.

Slowly it becomes apparent that Otomo’s crew has itself been targeted for destruction. His closest associates are shot to death by Yakuza assassins and his loyal right-hand man, Mizuno (Kippei Shiina) is all but beheaded by a hit team working for Kato.

Otomo's sidekick and lieutenant, Mizuno
With his crew gone and his boss turned against him, Otomo surrenders to the crooked but ingratiating Detective, Kataoka, and is put in prison. In one of the final scenes of Outrage, Kimura (Hideo Nakano), a rival whose face Otomo has slashed during the gang war, meets him in the prison’s exercise yard and sticks him in the belly with a makeshift shank.

The bloodbath continues in Beyond Outrage (2013), a sequel to the original film. Otomo, it turns out, was only wounded by the prison-yard knifing. He recovers and is serving his time, weary of a life of crime and without any connections among the current generation of gangsters outside the penitentiary’s walls.

The crooked  detective Kataoka arranges for Otomo to get an early release, hoping to whip up the rivalries between the various leaders of the Sanno-Kai. But Otomo spurns his attempted enlistment, suspecting Kataoka is playing gang members off against each other.

The old gangster plans to take the offer of an industrialist friend and emigrate to South Korea, but Kimura, the man who stabbed him in prison then later reconciled with him, dreams only of regaining his Yakuza family and persuades Otomo to join him in seeking revenge against Kato and the other renegade Sanno-kai gangsters.

Otomo is initially reluctant, but after he is attacked in an elevator by an inept assassin sent by Kato, he agrees to help Kimura get his revenge.

The two older Yakuza have no chance against the army of killers at Kato’s disposal, so they forge an alliance with a group of southern gangsters, the Hanabishi-kai. Once again a bloodbath ensues which ends with a confrontation between Otomo and Kataoka outside a Yakuza funeral.

Otomo and Kimura seek the help of the Hanabishi-kai

A third film is supposedly in the works, but little information about it has leaked to date. However, even without a full trilogy, there is a neat bit of of symbolic symmetry at work in beginning the two films with a funereal banquet and ending it with an actual funeral.

There is a reason for this symbolism: what Takeshi seems to be making is not simply a Yakuza movie but a critique of the breakdown of the Japanese social order as a result of the country’s economic collapse. This is why they banquet in the opening sequence resembles a memorial service: taken together, Outrage and Beyond Outrage form a stylized funeral for a way of life based on loyalty, shared purpose and solidarity that overshadows all other considerations.

In the 1980s Japan, Like China today, was considered an economic powerhouse likely to eventually rule the capitalist world. The country’s surge in industrial power inspired stories like Michael Crichton’s controversial Rising Sun, in which Japanese Corporations attain a dominant position vis-à-vis their U.S. rivals.

But the Japanese bubble burst (much as it is beginning to in China) and the country plunged into two decades worth of economic stagnation. That stagnation not only slowed the growth of the Japanese economy and undermined the country’s march to financial dominance but also had major effects on Japanese society as a whole, eliminating much of the cultural glue that inspired the Japanese economic “miracle” in the first place.

A presentation on cultural values created by Stanford University scholars Danny Pyo, Joanna Hewitson and Elizabeth Gordon says Japanese culture is arranged around such factors as an individual's obligation to the group, behaving according to status, collective action and harmony.

These tendencies are deeply ingrained in the nation's social structure and also are critical elements of its way of organizing businesses and marketing products.

Tomoko Oikawa and Brian Coates, two specialists in Japanese culture and communication in Limerick, Ireland, have examined the operation of Japanese keiretsu (business groups) to see which cultural variables play the biggest role in internal operations. The conclusion they reached? "Our findings are that keiretsu belongs to cultural values, that is, trust & dependence. The keiretsu as an economic organization is just a phenomenon of keiretsu values."

Trust and dependence are not primary factors in western business decision-making processes, which tend to emphasize individual initiative over collective activity.

As Eric Messerschmidt, a lecturer at the Institute for Asian Studies at Florida Internation University puts it, the Japanese economy "still runs on family or group dynamics rather than the rule of law or free market forces and [it is] one in which most disputes are settled on a personal level because of the lack of trust in the judiciary."

The boryokudan works in much the same fashion as the keiretsu: the primary relationship is between the kobun (underling) and oyabun (boss); personal relationships, loyalty and trust are key, and much business is conducted by means of handshake agreements.

"Because so many of the business transactions are done with a handshake and a lack of a paper trail, this makes it easier for tendering systems and bids to be fixed, for example, and for the Yakuza to muscle in," Messerschmidt writes.

This cultural affinity for trust, loyalty and personal harmony has been breaking down as a result of the "lost decades" of economic stagnation in Japan. As Peter Hill, a sociologist at Meiji Gakuin university in Tokyo, puts it in his paper, Heisei Yakuza: Burst Bubble and Bōtaihō,  "the continuing economic hardship faced by the yakuza is weakening the intra- and inter-organisational mechanisms by which they have tried to stabilize their world."

Takeshi seems to be building the plots of Outrage and Beyond Outrage around the deterioration of the country's social fabric mentioned by these experts.
Take away the violence and the gore and the settings where the action takes place could be the meeting places and offices of any large Japanese corporation. The parallels between boryokudan organization and Japanese corporate structure are continually underscored throughout each film, as are the notion that the traditional interpersonal relationships which once characterized the Japanese underworld have given way to rampant individualism, personal greed and a lack of concern for the group as a whole.

Thus, Kato, the new Sanno-kai boss, is relentlessly ambitious; Ishihara, an Otomo underling who betrays his old boss in the first film, setting up Otomo’s fall from grace, is disloyal and self-absorbed. The leaders of the Hanabishi-kai covet the Sanno territory and only commit to Kimura’s revenge plot so they can benefit from it by supplanting their rivals.

Ishihara has a private business conference
with an underling who has displeased him.
On numerous occasions, Yakuza leaders discussing Kimura and Otomo behind their backs ridicule them as old line Yakuza. The implication is, they are out of date, hidebound – and thus poor candidates for the new post-bubble Japanese underworld.


At one point Kimura bites off the first joint of his little finger as an offering of loyalty and atonement to the Hanabishi-kai. The senior gangsters are appalled; they would rather argue with Otomo than actually accept the mutilated digit that Kimura offers.

The incident is one of several occasions in the films in which the practice of yubitsumi (finger cutting), a significant boryokudan tradition, is disrespected. In the first, members of Otomo's clique, having engineered a loss of face for another gang's boss, declines an underling's finger offered as a gesture of atonement, saying "do you think money and a punk's finger can make up for it?" 

Almost immediately afterward, Otomo's crew demands that the underboss of the rival gang cut his own little finger off at the first joint to make amends. Adding insult to injury, they offer him a dull box cutter to sever the joint instead of a sword or a hammer and chisel as is normally the case.

By themselves, these are small examples of derisive behavior, but they symbolize the collapse of long-standing traditions. Takeshi uses them well to illustrate the larger point about Japanese society he is making in Outrage and its sequel. 


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.