Roxelana talks to Mark Billingham about whether swearing is the real crime in thriller writing
No matter what pedestal you stand on, there’s always someone ready to throw an egg at you. In Mark Billingham’s case, whose first crime novel Sleepyhead was a U.K bestseller, he’s been hit by the odd complaint regarding his use of that evocative, hard-edged, aggressive, powerful and beautiful word: fuck. So, what’s a crime writer to do?
One quick fire response is to chuck it back into the blogosphere. Mark wrote a post as a reply to one particular complaint letter. In this post, ‘The F Word: Expletive Deleted’, he expressed his surprise at a few readers’ attitude. ‘I just find it astonishing that they can pick up a book about something incredibly dark and think that murder’s fine, that rape and child abuse are all fine, so long as there’s no swearing.’
In Mark’s view, the art of swearing in fiction depends on the context. He says, ‘If a reader picks up a book called Tiddles And The Case of the Missing Teapot and it’s full of “fuck this” and “fuck that” then that reader’s got every right to go, “Oh my lord!”‘ At the same time, other writers who paint extremely dark and grisly settings can be too restrained: ‘There’s one writer who writes a modern police procedural series set in Derbyshire and there’s a bit where this copper and this policewoman are trying to track somebody across the moor. One of them says to his partner: “I’m sure we’ll find signs of him. He must have had to urinate or defecate somewhere.”’
This robotic dialogue seems to echo an older generation’s expectations of crime writing. Mark says his occasional complaint letter comes from readers in their 50s, 60s and 70s. Modern detectives have evolved since the genteel days of Sherlock Holmes. He points out, ‘That’s just not the way people talk to each other, certainly not hairy-arsed coppers. I actually find that quite offensive and every bit as silly as the gratuitous use of bad language.’
To Mark, the F word is simply part of the craft of his books. ‘I would certainly go through a manuscript before I deliver it and take out every F word that I don’t think is necessary. It’s the same approach I have towards any word in the book. It’s all about cutting out the stuff you don’t need.’
He treats complaint letters about swearing lightly. ‘I try and get as much comic mileage out of them as possible!’ He finds certain comments are highly amusing. ‘Most of them take the trouble to say, “You’re going to think I’m an old fuddy-duddy but…” They want to tell me they’re broadminded, “Oh I’ve worked in the navy’ or ‘I’ve spent years working in heavy industry, but even so…”‘ He keeps these snippets in a little black book that he reads out at events.
However, for a busy writer occupied with churning out his next book, the F word count is a lower priority. Mark has just delivered a book due out in August. ‘I had to spend an awful lot of time in a newsagent’s because half of it is set in one room in a newsagent. So I had to get to know my local newsagent very well!’
His inspiration comes from the harder edged end of the crime writing spectrum. He is a fan of work by George Pelecanos, Ian Rankin and Denise Mina among others and has yet to discover the world of Stieg Larsson. ‘I don’t like anything cosy, anything that involves a cat.’
On the other hand, his readers who grumbled about the F word would probably prefer to curl up on an armchair and admire the ‘little grey cells’ of Hercule Poirot.
Some memorable F word quotes:
“The country runs better with a good-looking man in the White House. Look what happened with Nixon… no one wanted to fuck him, so he fucked everyone.”
- Kim Cattrall playing Samantha Jones in Sex and the City
“Well, you know, like, I don’t really give a fuck what the general public think.”
- Sid Vicious
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do. / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you.”
- Philip Larkin
“The more money I earn, the less they can stop me. Where I come from it’s called fuck you money because I don’t have to take an ounce of shit from anybody.”
- Michael Moore
“You want me to give you a name? Oh, the pressure of a name…Cinder-fuckin-rella.”
- Laura San Giacomo playing Kit De Luca in Pretty Woman
“That’s the whole trouble. You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write “fuck you” right under your nose.”
- J.D. Salinger