Monday, August 5, 2013

Say, I Reckon They Must be American....Dialect Speech in Golden Age Mystery

One finds quite a lot of dialect speech and
foreign accents in this Fletcher mystery
In a generally favorable notice of J. S. Fletcher's mystery The Orange Yellow Diamond (1920), an American reviewer was moved to comment about how unconvincing he found portrayals of American speech in British crime novels:

[The Orange-Yellow Diamond] has a leisurely movement that is distinctly pleasing to the reader, without really retarding the novel's action, and one never loses the sense--that in so many detective stories one never gains--that this is really a story about human beings.  At the same time, the American reader may be expected to express a certain weary irritation with the character who is presented as being "a New York man," who in the course of one short speech gives vent to "I guess," "Say," "I reckon," and "I've knocked around pretty considerable."

I can sympathize.  Golden Age British mystery writers often had a regrettable fondness for "colorful" dialect speech, and too rarely were they very good at it (Dorothy L. Sayers, on the other hand, may do too good a job with her Scots speech in The Five Red Herrings--readers have been known to complain that they can't understand anything the characters in this novel say!).

The stage Cockney spoken by so many working class characters in Golden Age detective novels had been mocked by critics of the period like Colin Watson, but the American speech in these books--which surely is every bit as dreadful--doesn't seem to get as much derisory notice.  I can't think why!

One sees this sort of thing not merely with J. S. Fletcher, who though he was probably the most popular English mystery writer in the United States in the 1920s never actually visited the country, but even Agatha Christie, who had an American father and ought to have known better.

Another thing authors like Fletcher, Christie and Freeman Wills Crofts like to do when they portray Americans, besides having them use (and use) the expressions quoted above, is give them these dreadful, cumbersome names like Carthage T. Cudcruncher.  Usually such an individual is a voluble, self-made millionaire from Chicago or some obscure spot on the Great Plains, like, say (say!), Prairie Oyster, Kansas.

But I suspect these writers probably really did know better, and were just adhering to a standard convention of the time.  In truth, American writers typically didn't cover themselves in glory with the way they portrayed speech by, say (say!), African-Americans, Chinese-Americans and Italian-Americans; so I reckon maybe Americans who warn't bothered by that didn't have too much right to complain about how the British did dialect speech.  I guess thar was room for considerable improvement all round!


  1. The way that British GA writers addressed working class dialogue was bizarre and appalling. And if those working class characters happened to come from the North of England....
    Suffice to say that I love the GA books despite such flaws, but even so, there are some sections I feel the need to skip.

    1. I always thought John Street did a better job with dialect than some. Crofts was better on Ireland, I think, because he lived there for a long time. Anthony Wynne seems to have any "working class" person speak Cockney, whatever part of England they are from.

    2. By the way, Martin, J. S. Fletcher was the Yorkshire regional novelist, like Eden Phillpotts with Devon, so was supposed to have a good handle on the dialect speech there. And that Kenneth Ashley book I reviewed this year was rather amazing with rural dialect, but of course that's a totally obscure book.

  2. "I reckon" was probably more common in the 19th Century, I've read it a lot in Twain. And my Grandmother (born 1909)used it on occasion, although I'm sure she was being sarcastic as it had fallen out of style by the mid-late 20th Century.

  3. Jeff, I have to admit, I guess (whoops!), that Crofts got one thing right when he has a Midwest woman referring to her camera as "my Kodak." My paternal Grandmother from Oklahoma called every camera a Kodak until the end of her life in 1984! Of course, the trick, I think, is to use dialect speech sparingly. Too many writers back then felt like they had to have Americans spouting Americanisms every few words, and it quickly gets absurd.

    I never thought about saying "I guess" until I started reading GA mysteries. I'be gotten a phobia about saying it now!

  4. Well "stone the crows" as they just said in a book I just finished and which they no longer say with a straight face i the UK - I remember several American readers pointing out how poor some of the Peter Cheyney and James Hadley Chase idioms were - but then these authors set their books in the US but hadn't actually been there so ...

  5. Some English people said "I reckon" in the mid-20th century. "I guess" is useful shorthand for "I imagine". Or "I reckon".

  6. I think that one could make the point that, until fairly recently, if you wanted to use a foreign or working class character in your book, where were you going to look? Unless you were prepared to travel to the part of the country that you were writing about, you either made it up or based it on A) dialect writing in other books B) what you heard in the movies. These days it isn't that hard to find examples of Geordie speech on TV or the internet, but if you were a crime novelist back in the Golden Age you were pretty limited in your sources.