Monday, March 18, 2013

Sex, bullshit, and good stuff from Ireland

`Can any good come from Ireland?"

I don't know what I'd have answered when Gerald of Wales asked that question 825 years ago, but today I'd reply that some of Ireland's crime fiction is all right.

At the moment Conor Brady's 2012 novel A June of Ordinary Murders continues my Irish education. The novel has a dogged police detective sergeant tracking three murders in Dublin in 1887. That was a big year, the jubilee of Queen Victoria's reign and a time of heightened activity by the Land League and the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

But the novel wears its history lightly. Here's an example: Anyone who has read a British or Irish crime or espionage novel will likely have encountered the term Special Branch, that secretive national-security force whose very name makes perps, regular police, and readers alike tremble with fear and excitement. All it takes is a few mentions of Scotland Yard's Special Irish Branch here to remind the reader that the first Special Branch, of London's Metropolitan Police, was, indeed, formed (in 1883) to combat the IRB.

A June of Ordinary Murders (as distinguished from the political murders much on Irish and English minds at the time) is also good on period detail, with the protagonist, Joe Swallow, doing a lot more walking than fictional police of stories set in later periods. My only historical quibbles amount to little more than bullshit. Characters in this 1887-set novel use that expletive several times, though it did not come into popular use until around 1914, according to several sources.

I'm also not sure gender was as widely used for sex in 1887 as it is in A June of Ordinary Murders. The question is less one of strict chronological accuracy than of striking the right tone. Gender, though I am convinced that its spread in America is due to puritanical reluctance to say and write sex, is attested in that sense well before 1887. But it sounds a bit too twentieth- and twenty-first-century to me.
*
And now, for a lighter-hearted invocation of a Special Branch man, let's give it up for Ronnie Drew and the Dubliners.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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41 Comments:

Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"gender was as widely used for sex in 1877"

You're right; it wasn't. It was around in the more scholarly literature and commentary in the 1870s-1900s but didn't come into common usage as a replacement for sex until the 1970s-80s. I recently read a novel which took place in fin de siecle Vienna and gender appeared in place of sex. Laughable, especially considering the impact Freud was having on the popular culture at the time. Gender to replace sex is truly one of those "things that drive me nuts."

March 18, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's one of those things that drive me nuts, too. Rarely will gender for sex make see the light of day in a story I have copy-edited. I did find examples of gender used for sex well before 1877, but I think the very fact that someone felt compelled to come up with such a list suggests how rare the usage was.

March 18, 2013  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

And when gender did appear for sex, note how often they were used interchangeably, how often they appear in the same sentence. They are no longer considered interchangeable.

March 18, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I found an example of one of the James brothers -- I forget if it was Henry or William -- using gender for sex. In that usage, admittedly out of context, it seemed like a rhetorical or poetic flourish.

March 18, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Rarely will gender for sex make see the light of day … "

Strike make from the above and accept my apologies for the superfluous word. That's the sort of quality one must expect when running a publication without copy editing.

March 18, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I liked A June of Ordinary Murders. I agree with you that the actual language isn't as important as the tone. If the tone is right then I feel you can get away with anything, including changing the facts of history, using words from a different temporal context or even deliberate use of anachronisms. It is fiction after all. However if the tone jars then the book fails.

March 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Right. It's not that I'll be reading a book set in 1887, see a word that I know was first recorded in 1891, and say, "Aha!" Rather, I'll come upon a word that seems wrong for its time, and research will reveal that it is, in fact, anachronistic.

In this case, I liked the novel well enough that I kept reading. That's not always the case. I once put a well-regarded novel aside because of a glaring lexical anachronism on the first page, I think in the first sentence.

March 19, 2013  
Blogger Dave Knadler said...

Just bought this on your (usually reliable) recommendation. I'm kind of digging this historical crime-fiction trend.

March 19, 2013  
Blogger Dave Knadler said...

... and personally, I tend to think that "gender" is sometimes better, to the extent that it clarifies the difference between sexual identity and sexual everything else. But that's just me.

March 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm not usually a historical crime fiction type of guy, but I'll make an exception for Ireland. You might also look for Peeler, by Kevin McCarthy.

March 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dave: That's what "gender" is for. But the great majority of examples in the popular press are as needless, sometimes unintentionally humorous substitutes for "sex."

March 19, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

For me, anachronisms from a period I know well--which is to say the period of my life--are enough to ruin tone. It's one of the things that makes me not so much of a fan of Mad Men as others are. The things people say that they wouldn't have said or do that they wouldn't have done take me out of the story.

From earlier historical periods, or other countries, I don't usually have the same problem, because I don't know enough.

March 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

James Ellroy has spoken with approval of an anachronism in the filming of L.A. Confidential: None of the detectives wore hats. Though hats would have been authentic, he said (if I recall correctly), giving the detectives hats would have distracted the audience. Then someone else complained to me recently that the hats were a distraction in Crime Squad.

I wonder if people who were around during the period of Mad Men are less impressed with the show than younger viewers are. And yes, one would have to know a period well to be distracted by anachronisms from that period, whether it is one's own life or periods one knows well at second-hand. You'd probably be annoyed by characters who went around saying Groovy! in a story set in the 1890s or 23 skidoo! in a 1970s crime novel--unless the stories were surreal comedies.

March 19, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

This is a good piece from The Atlantic on just how hard it is to write a period just before our own, which I believe I read before when I was trying to get some backup for my own sense of fakeness in Mad Men.

March 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I didn't realize Mad Men's research was so shoddy and its writers so tin-earred. I've never seen the show, but I would have raised an eyebrow at quite a number of those phrases.

Of course if I watched the show, I might be distracted by the smoky atmosphere or by Christina Hendricks and not notice the mistakes. So maybe the show pays more attention to a glitzy surface than to getting things right. And that seems very contemporary.

March 19, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Seana

I'm a lot more sympathetic about anachronistic uses of language. Mad Men isnt a documentary about life in a white shoe Madison Avenue advertising firm during the 60s. It's Matthew's Wiener's re-imagining the world of his parents that he witnessed as a young child and tried to understand in the 1990's through the writing of this script. All art since 1922 can be viewed through a postmodern lens and if you do so you'll find yourself relaxing a little about "mistakes" in language. Werner Herzog talks about the concept of emotional truth rather than truth truth and I think that's a nice idea: if the tone and emotional truth are there then the other stuff isn't quite as important.

A real touchstone for me on this subject is the book HHHH by Laurent Binet, which I recommend highly although its entirely possible that it will irritate the hell out of you.

March 19, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

Well, as you should know by now, I am not really much of a stickler in general. What I think it is in this particular case is that as I believe I read somewhere or was told by someone, Wiener is just that little bit younger than me that he has to reconstruct some of this, while I have more of a lived aural memory of the era. As one of my friends told me, we are exactly the same age as Sally, while Wiener is probably the age of the baby brother. So for example I remember the day Kennedy died, while my youngest sister doesn't. I experience the dissonance on how people thought about race and women and all those things I would have come in contact with through television etc. in a way that Wiener wouldn't. And as you say, for the vast majority of people these little things probably don't matter. But the 'real' period is probably less real for them too.

As for HHHH, I will give it a go at some point. I am pretty used to things annoying the hell out of me.

March 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Emotional truth is a nice idea, and I suppose it fits nicely with what I like say about plausibility rather than authenticity being what fictional depictions ought to aspire to. For me "gender" for "sex" in 1887 lacks emotional truth. I'm not sure how I'd react to "leverage" as a verb in a story set in the 1960s. Though I haven't seen "Mad Men," I'm sypmpathetic to the questions she raises.

March 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder if "our own" era--that period each of us remembers as his or her own-- is getting smaller. You know, for a while there the media were popularizing a new "generation" every twenty minutes: Generations X, Y, and Z, and who knows where it would have stopped it they hadn't started with the alphabet's 24th letter, Millennials, and so on. Does each group have its own sense of what sort of language, dress, and other manners and mores are appopriate for its time?

March 19, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

I will say against myself that many of my contemporaries love the show and aren't much bothered by these things. But I think they're just happy to see an era of their early memory portrayed at all. I haven't really had a chance to talk to anyone who would have been the same age as the adults in the show to see what they think of it.

March 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian: What creative anachronisms, whether in your books or elsewhere, served an emotional rather than chronologocal truth?

March 19, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Of course this is my interpretation of Wiener's script, whether he thinks like this or actually thinks he's doing a good job (but transparently shitty) of mimesis I have no idea.


Peter

I think it was a Canadian who started that XYZ business.

I think you should save Mad Men for a post op recuperation period when you're stuck in a hospital room with nothing to do and a head too fuzzed to read. At the very least Christina Hendricks will give you something to live for.

March 19, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Our comments crossed.

Well I like the word motherfucker and have used it in contexts where it wouldnt normally have been used.

My favourite example is Van Morrison in his masterpiece Madame Joy (from Astral Weeks) has a 1960s Belfast transvestite say "Lord have mercy I think that its the cops" which is utterly ridiculous but somehow completely works in the context of the song.

I was also very impressed by the use of deliberate jarring anachronisms in the little seen movie Swoon about the Leopold and Loeb case.

And recently HHHH's entire stance...

March 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yep, I think it was Douglas Coupland. Poor guy. I presume he called his generation X because of all the resonance X had. Thanks goodness he didn't start with A or B; this nonsense would have gone on a lot longer.

A book, of course, will tend to focus a reader's attention on words a lot more than television will. With television, there are so many more way to bombard the viewer--you know, the semiotics of Christina Hendricks, and all that--that maybe words just matter less.

OK, that's depressing to a words guy like me, but I wonder if writers for television are consciously aware of this.

March 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Madame George," I presume you mean. But why is that cops line nonsense or anachronistic? Out of context, anyhow, I'd guess it means a transvestite wh fears being hassled by the cops. Or would no one in Belfast in the 1960s have said, "Cops"?

March 19, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Sorry yes Madame George (although the title was Madame Joy until the album release). No one in Belfast would have spoken like Aretha Franklin or Ray Charles, not even a cosmopolitan transvestite madame. No one would have said Lord have mercy or cops. And yet...its perfect. In fact the whole song's perfect.

March 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's a hearbreaking song, and I didn't know the earlier title. But Morrison's choosing to sing the song in the voice of, say, a black American singer from the 1960s, would be an artistic choice, and not a mistake along the lines of, say, using clusterfuck in a novel set in the early 1950s. And I think the voice is consistent throughout the song. You'd probably react differently if on Page 55 of an otherwise naturalist or relist novel set in 1960s Belfast a character out of nowhere said: "Lord mercy, it's the cops."

March 19, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Yeah thats right. The emotional truth and consistency of Madame George makes the whole thing work.

Sometimes Van doesnt quite pull it off. Here's the lyrics for And It Stoned Me. (below) I think the whole thing works except for the line about the silver half a crown. Yes Van would have had a silver half a crown in N Ireland in the 50's, but in the context of county fairs and pick up trucks and fishing poles (not rods) it seems a bit weird. Although I could argue the way I've argued with Weiner above that this is Van reimagining his childhood from the perspective of Los Angeles rather than an attempt to actually capture that childhood and thus the influences blend. Anyway here's the song see what you think:

Half a mile from the county fair
And the rain came pouring down
Me and Billy standing there
With a silver half a crown
Hands are full of the fishing rod and the tackle on our backs
We just stood there getting wet
With our backs against the fence

Oh, the water
Oh, the water
Oh, the water
Hope it don't rain all day

And it stoned me to my soul
Stoned me just like Jelly Roll
And it stoned me
And it stoned me to my soul
Stoned me just like going home
And it stoned me

And the rain let up, and the sun came up
While we were getting dry
Almost let a pickup truck nearly pass us by
So we jumped right in, and the driver grinned
And he dropped us up the road
And we looked at the swim, and we jumped right in
Not to mention fishing poles

CHORUS

On the way back home we sang a song
But our throats were getting dry
Then we saw the man from across the road
With the sunshine in his eye
Well he lived all alone, in his own little home
With a great big gallon jar
There were bottles, too, one for me and you
And he said, "Hey, there you are"

...

Then the rain let up and the sun came up
And we were gettin' dry
Almost let a pick-up truck nearly pass us by
So we jumped right in and the driver grinned
And he dropped us up the road
We looked at the swim and we jumped right in
Not to mention fishing poles
Oh, the water
Oh, the water
Oh, the water
Let it run all over me
Chorus

March 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yeah, a silver half crown sounds like something valuable. It sounds like abundance, which may be out of keeping with the rest of the song.

Another thing that I come across from timt to time in novels set in the U.S. and with American characters but written by authors from some place using UK-influenced English are UK terms for everyday objects: Lorries, footpaths, and so on. It's always a little jarring, but I can understand why the author (or publisher) does it.

March 19, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

Adrian, I think that Weiner's take is perhaps a bit more like your take on Sean Duffy than I was first realizing. So for me, reading Cold Cold Ground and having been in England at just that moment, the whole era just came off the page whole. But for someone who was an adult on Coronation Road or in the local constabulary, they might notice the discrepancies from how they saw it more, as I think one or two of your commenters have said, although others seem to have really enjoyed the representation. When you've "been there", you feel more right to spar for your version, I think.

March 19, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Yeah I'm just not sure a British coin quite works in a song so replete with American references.

I don't know why but I hate the word lorries and very rare use it

March 19, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Well yes. Sean Duffy wasnt living at 113 Coronation Road, Carrickfergus at the time of the two Duffy novels. I was. As far as I know there were zero Catholic RUC detectives in the entire housing estate (housing project). There are half a dozen real people (the terrorist commander for one) from Coronation Road in the book under fake names but it wouldnt matter to me if there werent any. If I wanted to I could have populated the entire street with Jamaican immigrants or vampires or aliens or whatever. The actual truth is irrelevant, what matters is if I pulled off the artistic endeavour. If I didnt the book fails on that criterion alone.

March 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I learned the hard way what a footpath is. The first time I visited Belfast, I was taking directions over the phone from Gerard Brennan on how to get to No Alibis. He's telling me, "You walk up the footpath," and I think he's talking about some pathway or short cut, and I think, "The hell with that; I'll take the bus."

March 19, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

I think we're probably arguing about something that can't be resolved by argumtent. A rendering of an historical moment either works for you or it doesn't. You can call it tone while I call it detail, but if the detail wrecks the tone for me, it does. So Mad Men doesn't really work for me, but Cold Cold Ground does. I think if you'd put vampires in it, it wouldn't. But you're right, you can populate your fiction however you want. Might get a bigger demographic with vampires, actually.

March 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or you're making an argument that can be advanced only by offering examples. OIf a given anachronism bothers one of you but not the opther, so much the better.

March 20, 2013  
Blogger Kevin McCarthy said...

this is a great discussion, and a topic that preoccupies me no end, writing historical crime fic, as one does, to pass the time. (incidentally, I read A June of Ordinary Murders and liked it as well, though agree with you about the occasional anachronisms)

someone, somewhere, said that in writing historical fiction one strives for 'authenticity rather than veracity'. this is what i strive for, generally. as peter says above, emotional truth over/rather than chronological?

at the same time, i am obsessed with dialogue being as 'authentic' as possible and therefor if a person wouldn't have said it then, they don't get to say it my book. this is all to say that my characters use anachronistic language all the time until i think, no, that don't wash, and change it. luckily enough, my agent is a complete etymology/crossword buff and catches things that i wouldn't. for example, in peeler, set in 1920, i used the word 'posh'. now, i knew the origins of it--port outward, starboard home--and assumed it would have been in use but said agent informed me that it only appeared first in print in 1922. (if i remember correctly). i made the argument, however, that words are commonly used oral language (particularly slang) for some time before they appear in print. (admittedly, the obverse is also true) he agreed finally and we went with 'posh' and i'd stand by it.


a greater sin, in my eyes, is anachronisms of character, where 19th century detectives BEHAVE in a wholly 21st century manner. feminist, cozily liberal, all-lifestyle respecting, racially unbiased new men and women in period clothes. i hope modern detectives are all these things but i doubt any were any of these things back then. books have been thrown across rooms for this sin, my own included! (only to be picked up and slashed in red pen)

as for Madame George, I always assumed she was using 'cops' in a kind of camp ironic way, referencing Big City America or some such. And I always pictured And It Stoned Me to be about N Ireland, missing completely the pickup trucks and county fairs! DOH!

March 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Which reminds me that Declan Burke invoked Peeler in his discussion of A June of Ordinary Murders. When does Irregulars see the light of day?

March 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Another factor in a determining a given word's suitability in historical fiction has to be who would have been using the word. Elisabeth suggests that "gender" might well have occurred in scholarly writing and discussion in the 1880s. But the characters who use the word in A June of Ordinary Murders are everyday police officers, nothing else in whose characters suggest scholarly pursuit or interests (It's not just the scientifically minded Swallow who uses the word.) Hence, every occurrence of gender takes me momentarily out of the story.

As for political and social attitudes, I have written that Peter Lovesey's Bertie and the Seven Bodies pulls off one of the great feats of virtuosic magic in crime writing. He sets the story presumably late in the nineteenth century (Bertie is Queen Victoria's son), writes it in the style of a 1920s English country house mystery, and infuses it with a bit of ecological thinking bound to appeal to a late-twentieth-century audience, and he keeps the novel coherent, convincing, and entertaining.

March 20, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

Well, Kevin, it's very difficult to be consistent in my opinion here, because I had absolutely no problem believing in Lindsay Davis's Marcus Didius Falco the wisecracking detective in Ancient Roman garb. It helps I think when it comes to anachronism that the writer has been able to give you some clear signal about how exactly you are supposed to take things. No one thinks that Falco is 'realistic', but they do expect the period detail to be accurate. And I see what Adrian means in suggesting that Mad Men captures the style of an era. It feeds our imagination about it. In my case with Mad Men, though, it isn't giving me that. It's closer to the commercials version of the era than the actual era. Which is appropriate, but distancing.

I'm looking forward to reading Peeler, by the way. I've heard good things about it.

March 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, Lindsay Davis apparently gets the period detail right enough to satisfy people who would know if she didn't. She set one novel during the construction of what is known today as Fishbourne Roman Villa. The staff at the site love her.

Readers will presumably have zero knowledge about what ancient Romans or Greeks would have said, so how an author who sets a novel in that period and makes the characters plausible is, to me, a deep mystery. On the other hand, I find Robert Van Gulik's mysteries set in seventh-century China plausible.

Of course, Van Gulik's prototypes were eighteenth-century stories that had followed earlier plays, I think from the thirteenth century, about the real-life seventh-century Judge Dee. And Van Gulik's illustrations for the stories depict costumes from yet another period.

What do we learn from this? That writing and reading historical fiction is a bloody complicated business.

March 21, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Davis is a scholar in first-century Roman history, with trhe equivalent of a Ph.D. in the field, I believe--pubished, though I'm not sire whether that happened before or after her success with Falco.

March 21, 2013  

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