Books

Crooked compendium

Ms Lees offers a new take on the template, but she is walking a well-trodden path

This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


Write of what you know, they say, and Ms Lees, properly Gibson-Lees, seems well-suited to her self-imposed task. Her father was probably a spy (the crime), and in Hong Kong, where Ms Lees spent her youth, her mother was a headmistress (the dictionary). She has been an actress, notably in TV’s Allo! Allo! where she played a communist résistante, a role that for whatever reason required her to appear with a dachshund tucked beneath one arm.

From Aconite to the Zodiac Killer: The Dictionary of Crime By Amanda Lees Robinson, £10.99

And if she has not, or so we must assume, committed any actionable villainies, this has in no way restrained her from law-breaking, at least in fictional terms. She has written both adult crime and YA novels, broadcast on TV and radio, and won prizes across the board. Her latest work, a dictionary of the profession, seems a logical step.

The dictionary began life modestly as “A…” but reprints offer a declaratory “The”. Without wishing to quibble, and in terms of quantity and in no way quality, I would have stayed with the indefinite article. Crime, in lexicographical terms, has always paid. Ms Lees offers a new take on the template, but she is walking a well-trodden path and in dictionary terms listing crime’s interesting terminology ranks perhaps not as “the oldest profession” (though that too plays a major role) but certainly as a challenger. Like sex, crime sells, and the flow of lexicons, let alone all other aspects of what her blurb calls a “supergenre”, is long established and unlikely to abate.

In the taxonomy of slang, crime-related terms outpace even those of the human giblets and our mutual (or solo) frication thereof, and collections of such terms, long before such a thing as “slang” — either as individual word or wide-ranging lexis — even existed rank early in the annals of lexicography. The earliest, recording the language of the Mesopotamian beggars, rogues, criminals and confidence tricksters known as the Banu Sasan, (the Sons of Sasan) in the tenth century AD, was entitled Quasida Sasaniyya (“Poems about the Banu people”), lengthy versifications recounting the underworld life, and larded, naturally, with its language.

She has written both adult crime and YA novels, broadcast on TV and radio, and won prizes across the board

As well as listing a variety of occupations — snake-charmers, the exhibitors of bears or monkeys, doctors both qualified and quack, a variety of those extolling and exploiting religion, even those who perform “moonlight flits” to avoid their bills or rent — the author offers tricks that seem quite timeless. For instance, “the one who simulates a festering internal wound, and the people with false bandages round their heads and sickly, jaundiced faces. Al-hajar is the person who pierces a hole in an egg, which he secretes in his bosom, so that it oozes out as a yellow liquid.”

Four centuries on very little had changed. So-called “beggar books” were published across Europe. The first appeared in Italy, France and Germany in the mid-fifteenth century, the last in England around a century later. They were all much of a muchness: there would be anecdotes, descriptions of beggar types and their scams: faking illness, telling some concocted tale of despoliation or victimhood, parading — self-inflicted or contrived — wounds or mutilations that in the Christian West were now attributed not to the Byzantine Greeks, but to the apostate Moors.

The books also offered a glossary and sometimes even a list of local villains. In the magistrate Thomas Harman’s Caveat for Common Cursetours (1566) we find: “Harry Smith, hee dryveleth when he speaketh” and “Richard Horwood, wel neer lxxx. yeare old, he will bite a vi. peny nayle asunder with his teeth and a baudy dronkard.”

Cant, English’s technical name for criminal language, slang or otherwise, comes from the Latin cantare, to sing and suggests the sing-song tones of such beggars offering their fraudulent rationale for depriving you of money. The books themselves offered information, the titillating sense that by understanding their language one was getting an inside look at the world of villainy, and in parallel the idea that such knowledge might save one’s purse or even life.

It is in this tradition that Amanda Lees’s whirlwind tour through both cant and the harder-edge technical terminology of crime belongs

There was also the belief, and this works whatever the genre but especially in crime, that jargon underpins validity. It is in this tradition that Amanda Lees’s whirlwind tour through both cant and the harder-edge technical terminology of crime belongs.

The complete language of crime — slang, standard, specialist — runs to thousands of words. Sensibly resisting such excesses, Ms Lees offers an alluring mixture, drawing on all three areas — the good bits, as it were. Her dictionary’s 300-odd pages are packed with information and we trust her to know whereof she writes.

While one can browse, with many rewards, the overriding sense of her dictionary of crime is of a useful textbook for those — and there seem to be more every day — who have set out to trouble the taxman with the profits of crime book creation. This has not a typical dictionary function but, in her hands at least, it works. Thus while one finds criminal slang (shelling, dotty, owler, raze up) one also finds an abecedarium of acronyms (CIT, EPP, HDC), a variety of technical terms (electronic masking, petechial haemorrhage, cognitive bias, next generation identification), biographies (Jack the Ripper, his Russian “successor” Andrei Chikatilo) and micro-dissertations on such topics as serial killers, bullets, drugs or alcohol. This last, to finick, lacks one of the sphere’s heroic, if fictional lushes: Commissaire Jules Maigret, though perhaps she has chosen to stick to anglophones.

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