Not too long ago, I received an email from a reader taking me to task because Liss MacCrimmon, my amateur sleuth, after her earliest, cuss-free adventures, had started swearing. In this reader’s opinion, if I understood it correctly, swearing disqualifies a novel from being considered a cozy mystery. Furthermore, such a book should not be left lying around the house lest a child pick it up, open it, and be exposed to bad language.
Needless to say, I disagree with this very limited definition of a cozy. And I make it a policy not to respond to emails that force me to go on the defensive, a no-win situation if there ever was one. However, I was curious as to what had prompted this complaint.
Since the email was not specific, I pulled up the doc file of the book in question (A Wee Christmas Homicide) and used the “find” function to check for the presence of any words a reader might object to. I knew I hadn’t dropped the f-bomb, and I didn’t think I’d referred to any other bodily functions or . . . lets call them byproducts. Of course, strictly speaking, none of those are swear words, although most would probably be considered inappropriate language for a traditional mystery. What did I discover? I did use the word “pissed” once, to mean “angry with,” but since the speaker was a man and the situation he was in warranted strong language, I figure that word choice was pretty mild compared to what he might have said in real life (or in a hardboiled detective story).
Swearing, so I was always taught in Sunday School, is taking the name of the Lord in vain. I was pretty sure I hadn’t done that, although the use of “damn” (as opposed to not giving “a Tinker’s dam”) implies the use of “God” before it. I’ll be honest with you. My search yielded more instances of the word “damn” than I’d expected. I probably should have cut some of them, but not because they were swear words. They should have been cut because they were repetitious. Liss is frustrated on several counts during the book and seven times, twice in one sentence, she uses the words “damn” or “damned.” She also thinks it once. Other characters use “damn” four times in conversation. But here’s the funny thing: neither the number of times I used the word nor the word itself struck me as excessive any of the many times I reread the manuscript, nor did they jump out at my first reader, my agent, my editor, or the copy editor, all of whom had the opportunity to tell me to remove some or all of them from the text before publication.
Having investigated this far, I was intrigued. By the above definition, “hell” isn’t swearing, either, but I figured that was the second most common “offensive” word I was likely to have used. Yup. I found five instances in this same novel, but Liss herself didn’t use any of them.
What about other books in the series? According to the email, the earlier entries in the series were in the clear, so I picked another later one at random and ran the same check. My grasp on realistic language appears to be consistent. One person, provoked, said “pissed.” The word “hell” appeared four times, used by two different characters, neither of them Liss, but Liss does use the adjective “hellish” on one occasion. As for “damn” and “damned,” Liss uses the former four times and the latter once. Liss’s gal-pal Sherri says “damn” once. Liss’s love interest, Dan, says “damned” twice and other characters use that word three times.
The manuscript of that book, when I turned it in, ran 76,803 words in length. It contained seventeen “bad” words. Having now considered this issue, I don’t plan to make any changes in the way my characters talk. Is the cussing necessary? Probably not. Is it lazy writing? I don’t think so. I’m not using “hell” or “damn” for their shock value but because that’s the way that bit of dialogue or the character’s thought came to me as I was writing. It felt right to me that they’d use that particular word in that instance. In the book that will be out later this year (Ho-Ho-Homicide), Liss only uses “damn” once, but other people use “hell,” “damn,” and “damned.” Out of a total of 78, 411 words, those instances account for a total of twelve words. On the one occasion where Liss swears, she is under extreme stress, afraid neither she nor Dan will make it out of their predicament alive. I’d be more surprised if she didn’t swear.
But wait, as the TV commercials say. Here’s the kicker. I was taking that “fan’s” word for it that Kilt Dead and Scone Cold Dead were cleaner than A Wee Christmas Homicide. Well, guess what? On page five of the hardcover edition of Kilt Dead, Liss gets the bad news that her knee injury has ended her career as a professional Scottish dancer. Her reaction: “No. Damn it, no!”
And it doesn’t stop there. I counted twenty-nine “damns” in Kilt Dead. And twenty-three in Scone Cold Dead. There is one instance of “pissed” in each and several “hells.” My goodness me! That’s more cussing than in the book my correspondent was complaining about. How very strange.
What characters say in the books in the Liss MacCrimmon series aside, I’d be very interested to hear what other readers feel about this issue. Fellow writers, you chime in, too. What do you think? If there’s cussing, mild or otherwise, can a mystery novel still be considered a cozy? And if there’s a line to be drawn between acceptable and unacceptable, where do you draw it?