RE: RARA-AVIS: the jack bludis heresy

From: Robison Michael R CNIN (
Date: 29 Apr 2002

hi jim,

thank you for going thru the colloquial definition again. you perceived the problem i was having even though i was too embarrassed to admit it. i was simply having a hard time deciding what colloquial meant. i knew that you weren't defining it in the narrow sense of meaning that dialogue had to be salted (peppered?) liberally with words like "roscoe" and such, but i was shaky beyond that. i decided on "tough" talk as filling the bill, and thats why i had trouble with the definition seemingly not fitting the characters i mentioned. i've got a better feel for it now.

thanks, miker

************************************************* jim doherty said: The problem with defining hard-boiled as simply tough with no other qualifier is that it simply allows in too many characters.

However you define "tough" (and, without trying to come up with an absolutely authoritative definiton, let's agree that it's a combination of qualities that MAY [but don't necessarily] include [but aren't LIMITED to] physical courage, moral courage, physical prowess, determination, perseverance, and straightforwardness, to varying degrees depending on the individual), there are going to be all sorts of characters in crime fiction who don't fit.

Sherlock Holmes, to use the easiest example, is NOT hard-boiled. That's not a knock. That's simply an objective determination.

Not only is he not hard-boiled, but he and his ilk
(Poirot, Lord Peter, Philo Vance, etc.) were precisely what the early hard-boiled writers were trying to differentiate themselves from. I'm not sure when the
"Hammett/Chandler/Burnett" school came to be referred to as "hard-boiled," but I strongly suspect that, as with film noir, it was coined (or more correctly adopted, since the term did exist though not as a term describing a particular sub-genre of crime fiction) after the stories began to be published. And when the term was adopted, it was meant to describe something DIFFERENT from the classic "Doyle/Queen/Christie" style of mystery. It follows then, that anyone within that tradition, and Sherlock Holmes is the greatest exemplar of that tradition, CAN'T be hard-boiled.

Nevertheless, though Holmes is not hard-boiled, he is certainly tough. He more than holds his own in a barroom brawl in "The Solitary Cyclist." He bends steel in his bare hands in "The Speckled Band." He goes toe-to-toe with the most powerful man in European organized crime in "The Final Problem." He single-hadnedly carries on a weeks-long stakeout while hiding in a swamp in THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES. And others far more familiar with the Canon than me will probably be able to come up with other examples. Of course, Holmes would never describe himself as tough. He'd probably say "highly intelligent, skilled, and resolute," because "tough" is simply too "common" a term. Which brings me back to "colloquial."

I don't know what you think is meant by colloquial. God knows I've tried to explain several times the last few days, but let me suggest what it is not.

It is NOT necessarily mean unintelligent.

It is NOT necessarily semi-literate.

It is NOT necessarily ungrammatical.

It is NOT necessarily profane, obscene, or scatological.

It is simply a common man's way of talking. Straightforward, clear, and informal, at its core; not stiff, obfuscating, and formal. I'm not personally familiar with Doc McCoy (though if he's referred to as
"Doc" rather than "Doctor" that certainly indicates a colloquial nature), but allow me to suggest that both Smith and Renko talk the talk of common men.

Smith certainly uses grammar precisely and can throw around six-dollar words, but he's also the kind of guy calls his subordinates "Lad" and "Laddie" and who refers to a slain cop "one of our own" rather than as
"a fellow police officer." His way of speaking is lyrical rather than formal, in keeping with his Irish background (shanty Irish though it is). He's colloquial, all right. He's just not illiterate.

Renko's a tougher case, because, even though the books are written in English, Martin Cruz Smith has to construct the dialog so that it READS as though it's vaguely foreign, which gives it a misleadingly formal appearance. But it's only an appearance. I would suggest (and it's been years since I read GORKY PARK and I've never read the sequels) that if we knew Russian, and we could hear Renko speaking in Russian
(rather than an English that pretends to be translated Russian but is really just plain English), we'd be hearing colloquial Russian.

I think both characters qualify as hard-boiled using the "tough/colloquial" test, but even if they don't, if you like both characters what does it matter?


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