It may be because of my background in linguistics, but I find language fascinating. One of the things that research tells us about language is that each social group and profession develops its own vocabulary. There’s “medical speak,” there’s “legalese” and there are a lot of other examples too, including crime fiction vocabulary. It’s a sort of shorthand that we use to express ideas that would take a lot longer to describe if we didn’t have those terms. Not sure exactly what I mean? Here are just a few examples; I’ll bet there are others.
This stands for beautiful dead girl, and it’s a term I’ve just recently learned. If you think about it, lots of crime fiction involves the discovery of the body of at least one BDG. And that’s just the issue. There are so many novels that have that plot point that it’s become almost cliché. And far too often, the BDG plot theme is woven in with a high level of violence and a lot of other gratuitous elements so that there’s a lot less emphasis on a solid plot and well-developed characters. What’s more, many people don’t want to read stories in which young women are victimised.
Of course, a novel can be extremely well-written and well-regarded even if there isn’t a BDG at all. For example, Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road is the story of the murder of Albert “Doc” Ozolins, a prospector who’s neither beautiful nor female. He’s not young either and he’s not murdered by a crazed serial killer. At first his death seems to be the tragic result of a drunken quarrel. But Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest suspects otherwise and begins to ask questions despite high pressure from her boss Bruce Cockburn to leave the case alone. And her perseverance pays off. It turns out that Ozolins’ murder is tied to something much bigger and more dangerous than a querulous drunk.
Does this mean a book with a BDG has to be gratuitous? Absolutely not. For example, Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back is the story of BDG Annie Holland, whose body is discovered by a tarn near the town of Granittveien. Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate the murder and they soon establish that this wasn’t a rape-and-murder killing by a maniac. It was murder by someone Annie knew and probably trusted. Sejer and Skarre look into Annie’s life and get to know her family members, her boyfriend and her schoolmates as they try to find out who would have wanted to kill her. In the end, it turns out that Annie’s death had everything to do with a past event in the village. And that’s part of the reason for which the BDG plot point works in this novel; it’s not the central focus. That is, Annie wasn’t killed because she was beautiful or young. She was killed for another reason entirely. In fact, her looks are not a main theme in the story.
The Hooey Alarm
Sometimes also known as The Implausibility Factor, this refers to the reader’s sense that the author is using coincidence, behaviour or other machinations to move a plot along when it wouldn’t happen that way in real life. For example, if the sleuth gets a call in the middle of the night to come and meet a witness in a secluded spot and does so – without bringing a mobile ‘phone – one’s hooey alarm ought to go off unless there’s a very, very good reason the sleuth does this. If the sleuth happens, by pure coincidence, to pick up a piece of paper from the ground – the very paper on which there’s a damaging piece of evidence against the killer – one’s hooey alarm should be sounding loudly.
There are, of course, coincidences in life and they can work well in crime fiction if used very sparingly. For instance, in Ngaio Marsh’s Enter a Murderer, Inspector Roderick Alleyn happens to be attending the Unicorn Theatre’s production of The Rat and the Beaver when one of the actors Arthur Surbonadier is shot by a prop gun that was loaded with “live” ammunition. So he’s on the scene and able to begin the investigation. That works well because Alleyn is a theatre buff; it makes sense that he would be at that play. And even Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot says,
“I am always prepared to admit one coincidence.”
More than that though and the novel does tend to set off the hooey alarm.
The “Ick” Factor
This refers to how much gore there is in a crime novel. Let’s be honest; crime fiction has violence in it. Since most crime fiction is about murder that makes sense. But a book with a high “ick” factor focuses more on the violence and gore than it does on a lot of other elements, and readers who don’t like a lot of gore get put off by that. So it’s always good to know what a book’s “ick” factor is before reading it, especially if you don’t like a lot of violence and gore.
What’s interesting is that a book doesn’t need to have a high “ick” factor to build suspense and keep readers turning pages. For instance, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is the story of a group of people who are invited for a stay at Indian Island off the Devon coast. Shortly after their arrival, each of them is accused of being responsible for the death of at least one other person. As if that isn’t unsettling enough, one of them suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Then another dies later the same night. The rest of the group slowly begins to realise that someone has lured them there and is targeting them one by one. The suspense in this novel is built through the paranoia that develops as it becomes clear that one of the people on the island is a killer and that no-one knows for sure who that person is. Each of the deaths (and there are several) is mentioned, but not in gory, brutal detail. Christie doesn’t rely on a high “ick” factor to build tension.
Many of today’s well-regarded novels don’t have an overly high “ick” factor either. For instance, Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery tells the story of the murder of Waldemar Leverkuhn. Leverkuhn and a few of his friends go in together on a lottery ticket that comes out a winner. On the night of the big news though, Leverkuhn is stabbed. Intendant Münster and his team investigate the killing and in the process, they get to know Leverkuhn’s friends, neighbours and family members. They discover too that Leverkuhn’s life was much more complicated than it seemed on the surface. Leverkuhn dies a fairly brutal death and Nesser doesn’t make light of that. But the death and some other later events are not described in gory gratuitous detail. So although the novel has violence in it, its “ick factor” isn’t nearly as high as it might have been.
Of course, everyone has a different “ick” factor tolerance and every story is different. A higher “ick” factor is more appropriate for some stories than it is for others. If the “ick” factor is really a good fit for the story, and not gratuitous, then it doesn’t have to take away from the story itself.
Better known as Translated Out Of Order Syndrome, this is a phenomenon experienced chiefly by people who enjoy translated crime fiction. Series written in one language are not always translated to other languages in the order in which the books were written. Sometimes that’s because the publisher feels that one or another novel will sell better than the debut of the series. Other times it has to do with contracts. There are other reasons too for which a series might not be translated in order. Whatever the reason, it can be quite annoying for readers. For example Arnaldur Indriðason’s very well-regarded Inspector Erlendur series begins with Synir Duftsins (Sons of Dust) and follows up with Dauðarósir (Silent Kill). But those two novels haven’t been translated into English yet. So English-speaking readers have to begin with the third novel Jar City. We miss out therefore on the beginning of this well-regarded series.
There are other cases where all of the novels in a series are translated, but not in order. That’s the case with Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss series. The first novel Detective Inspector Huss was followed up with The Torso and The Glass Devil. But Night Rounds, which is actually the second book in the series, wasn’t available in English until February 2012. Readers can “connect the dots” when TOOO Syndrome rears its head, but it can be annoying and frustrating.
That’s just a very, very short list of a few crime-fictional vocabulary entries. Got any you’d like to add? Maybe I’ll compile them into a crime-fiction dictionary.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elvis Costello’s Someone Took the Words Away.