Should The Bryant & May Novels Contain Swearing?
A blog comment from SteveB a while ago about him not liking clever movies is a good place to start a post. I love clever. It’s what I do and how I have the most fun. Sitting through the painfully flat and dull ‘Murder On The Orient Express’, which brings nothing to the remake other than playing it straight again, I longed for the wit and meta-smartness of ‘The Last of Sheila’. From ‘Memento’ to ‘The Usual Suspects’, from Noel Coward to Ben Hecht, from Ned Beauman to Charlie Brooker I want wit, speed, cynicism and daring, not the prosaic, bland or life-affirming.
But – clever gets hijacked into new meanings. One of the most tiresome is ‘ironic post-modern’, which usually means ‘a cynical reference to something I’ve heard of that makes me feel clever.’ It was largely created by US sitcoms from Seinfeld to The Simpsons, and is a kind of clever-without-being-intellectual.
The plays of James Graham, who manages to be a seasoned old pro at a relatively tender age because he started young and knew exactly what he wanted to do (write for the theatre) are both clever and intellectual, which makes him a very rare creature – something acknowledged by the number of plays he has running at any one time.
Speaking of playwrights, Alan Ayckbourn is a different kind of clever. His characters are always rather suburban and plain spoken but they develop in interesting ways. Tom Stoppard, on the other hand, dazzles with erudition, exploring grand themes with surprising and sometimes surreal twists, and his ‘Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead’ was a bravura explanation of what it means to find that you don’t play a central role in life (there was a film too, rather good).
What James Graham does on top of all this is capture the way people really speak. He’s been listening carefully to cadences, rhythms, pauses and overlaps, and instinctively knows how efforts to communicate sound out loud. But, as I think Kenneth Tynan said, ‘Dialogue is not conversation’. It’s richer, faster, sharper, more eloquent and elegant, and it has a point to make. Most of us are not eloquent and often fail to complete spoken thoughts.
When you write a dialogue-heavy novel you need to make sure all the voices are distinct, but in crime novels that’s very hard indeed because the police are always exchanging information, and it’s difficult inserting personality into data dumps. I saw a TV show the other night in which a character came into a room and said, ‘Hitler’s pilots have just bombed a small town in the North of Spain, Mr Picasso, it’s called Guernica and we think you should respond to it by making a large painting that says we protest against the Nazi invasion’. You won’t get much character from that kind of dialogue.
I loved the TV series ‘Taboo’ because it was shamelessly lurid and made no attempt to reproduce period language, but simply injected earth and salt into modern sentences, with impressive results. I was shocked when the chairman of the East India Company kept telling his staff to fuck off.
All of which brings me to this point. I don’t make any attempt to replicate naturalistic dialogue in the Bryant & May novels, but as I start to explore new ground in the later books it’s getting harder and harder not to have street characters swear. Londoners are astoundingly sweary folk and creative with it, so sometimes it does seem a shame not to have the peripheral characters letting loose with a burst of sparkling invective – although I don’t suppose anyone will top Peter Capaldi’s character from ‘The Thick Of It’.
But, I set out my stall for Bryant & May a long time ago and will probably end up staying with this handicap in place. I certainly have no problem with ripe language but when I started the series it felt inappropriate to bring the real language of the street into these strange, baroque tales. There is a line to be trodden between the real and the fanciful, and B&M are immune to the realities of police procedurals – although thematically they tackle very real subjects. But adding swearwords for veracity feels redundant. I’ll keep the saltier terminology for my other books!