Not very long ago, I got an email from a publishing company I’d previously contacted. One of the things I wanted was my contact’s confirmation that any contract I signed with this publisher would not involve any cost to me. Writers, I’m sure you know what it’s like to ‘feel out’ a publisher. The response I got was that the contract would likely involve at least some ‘cost sharing.’
Another term I’ve heard is ‘author subsidy.’ I’m sure there are plenty of others. What it all really means is that authors who sign with such publishers end up paying at least some of the cost of publication. Opinions about such contracts aside, what interested me was my contact’s choice of words. And it all got me to thinking about word choice and euphemisms.
I can’t, of course, say for sure, but my guess would be that phrases such as ‘cost sharing’ are designed to make the prospect of paying a publisher more palatable for an author. There are lots of other examples of words and phrases like that (e.g. ‘purchase,’ or ‘invest,’ rather than ‘pay’). And there are some good reasons to use them.
In crime fiction, euphemisms are sometimes much more effective, both for authors and for characters, than too much bluntness. For example, one of the most common sets of euphemisms in crime fiction are related to death. Many people, especially the bereaved, are uncomfortable with the words ‘dead,’ or ‘died.’ So the police, funeral arrangers, mourners and so on often avoid the word. In Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back, for instance, Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant, Jacob Skarre, investigate the murder of fifteen-year-old Annie Holland. One of the sad tasks Annie’s stepfather has to do is arrange for her funeral. So he has a conversation with a funeral director. It’s a very powerful scene, during which the director uses the term, ‘the deceased.’ Many such professionals also use the term, ‘loved one.’
Don’t Look Back also has an example of another sort of euphemism. As it turns out, the victim in this novel was raped before she died. Understandably, her stepfather can’t bring himself to use that word, so he chooses, ‘assaulted.’ And for his character, given the circumstances, that makes sense.
Lots of crime fiction novels, especially police procedurals, also include phrases such as ‘helping the police with their enquiries,’ or its parallel. For example, in one plot thread of Stuart MacBride’s Dying Light, DS Logan MacRae and the rest of DI Roberta Steel’s squad are investigating a series of murders of prostitutes. In one scene, MacRae’s listening to the radio in his car:
‘…someone was ‘assisting the police with their enquiries’ into the murder of a number of prostitutes.’
Most people know that means a person is likely a suspect. But there’s a good reason for that particular way of putting it. The police have to follow specific procedures to arrest someone. And the police may have good reasons not to be public about their suspicions. What’s more, journalists have to be careful to avoid libel or misrepresentation. ‘Assisting the police,’ sends the message that the police are working on a case without giving away false or premature information. It also sends the message they’re following procedure. So does the term ‘person of interest.’
Sometimes the police use euphemisms to put witnesses and suspects at their ease. In Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me?, for example, Dublin DS Claire Boyle is investigating the murder of a victim whose body was found in an empty apartment. So, naturally, she wants to find out as much as she can about the person who owns it. For that, she interviews Cormac Berry, who works with the firm that originally sold the apartment. Berry is, not surprisingly, concerned about being implicated. So during their talk, he eventually asks to speak to his lawyer. Here’s what happens when the lawyer arrives:
‘‘Ella O’Mahoney. I’m a legal representative for O’Mahoney Thorpe. I believe you are holding one of our employees here?’
‘Well, I wouldn’t say holding…’’
In that case, O’Mahoney strategically avoids a euphemism, so as to put herself and her client in a better position. But Boyle picks that up, and tries to make it clear where Berry stands:
‘‘I’ll just leave you two alone then. I’ll just come back for a chat in a few minutes, yeah?’’
As it turns out, what Boyle learns from Berry is useful in solving the murder.
There are lots of other examples of this sort of language use. When it comes to the way people actually use words, there are times when euphemisms work better than would unvarnished words. And authentic crime fiction reflects that.
On the other hand, euphemisms can sometimes be seen as condescending, or even deceptive. Some people would prefer plain language, which they see as straightforward and honest. And sometimes, that direct approach can add to a crime novel, too. In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, for instance, Hercule Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp and the local police to investigate a series of murders. The only thing they seem to have in common is that Poirot receives a cryptic warning note before each one, and an ABC railway guide is discovered near each body. At one point, Poirot visits the family of the second victim, twenty-three-year-old Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Barnard. In order to find out who might have wanted her dead, he needs to know more about the victim. But, as is the custom, people are reticent to be blunt. In one scene, Poirot mentions this to Betty’s sister, Megan:
‘‘I should like to find someone who knew Elizabeth Barnard and who does not know she is dead. Then, perhaps, I should hear what is useful to me – the truth.’
Megan Barnard looked at him for a few minutes in silence whilst she smoked. Then, at last, she spoke…
‘Betty,’ she said, ‘was an unmitigated little ass!’’
And that’s exactly the sort of direct language that Poirot wants to get a sense of what this victim was like.
What’s your feeling about euphemisms? When you read crime fiction, do you prefer them? Or do you prefer really direct, blunt language? If you’re a writer, how do you choose how direct your characters will be?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Seger’s Good For Me.