Signing and sociolinguistics in Ed McBain’s ‘Axe’

I went on a binge of Ed McBain’s crime fiction recently, enjoying his keen ear for language and tight storytelling style. Below are three language-themed excerpts from Axe, written in 1964, which features detectives Steve Carella and Cotton Hawes investigating a grisly murder.

First, to continue the theme of whom usage, is a doorstep encounter the detectives have with an old woman of unsound mind:

‘We’re detectives,’ Carella said. He showed her his shield and his identification card. He paused a moment, and then said, ‘May I ask who I’m talking to, ma’am?’

‘Whom, and you may not,’ she said.


‘Whom,’ she said.

‘Ma’am, I . . .’

‘Your grammar is bad, and your granpa is worse,’ the woman said, and began laughing.

The ellipsis in Carella’s last line, which shows he’s being interrupted, is a stylistic device known technically as aposiopesis. An em dash is also commonly used in this context.

Carella later meets his wife, Teddy:

Teddy Carella watched his lips as he spoke because she was deaf and could hear only by watching a person’s lips or hands. Then, because she was mute as well, she raised her right hand and quickly told him in the universal language of deaf mutes that the twins had already been fed and that Fanny, their housekeeper, was at this moment putting them to bed. Carella watched her moving hand, missing a word every now and then, but understanding the sense and meaning, and then smiled as she went on to outline her plans for the evening, as if her plans needed outlining after the kiss she had given him at the front door.

‘You can get arrested for using that kind of language,’ Carella said, grinning. ‘It’s a good thing everybody can’t read it.’

ed mcbain axe - pan books cover 1964Leaving aside the naive reference to the “universal language of deaf mutes” (signing, far from being singular, comprises many languages and dialects), it struck me as a laudable description, presenting signing as a normal activity and showing its potential for humour and seduction. I don’t read enough such accounts in fiction.

The final excerpt has Detective Hawes visiting an accountancy firm where he talks to Mr Cavanaugh, a portly businessman “born in Philadelphia and raised on that city’s brotherly South Side”, about someone previously employed by the firm:

‘We’re investigating a murder,’ Hawes said flatly.

‘You think Siggie killed somebody?’

‘No, that’s not what we think. But certain aspects of our information don’t seem to jibe, Mr Cavanaugh. We have reason to believe Mr Reuhr is lying to us, which is why we felt we should look into his background somewhat more extensively.’

‘You talk nice,’ Cavanaugh said appreciatively.

Hawes, embarrassed, said, ‘Thank you.’

‘No, I mean it. Where I was raised, if you talked that way you got your head busted. So I talk this way. I got one of the biggest accounting firms in this city, and I sound like a bum, don’t I?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Then what do I sound like?’

‘Well, I don’t know.’

‘A bum, right?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Okay, we won’t argue. Anyway, you talk nice.’

I liked this exchange a lot too. That McBain, he writes nice.

17 Responses to Signing and sociolinguistics in Ed McBain’s ‘Axe’

  1. Vinetta Bell says:

    Thank you, Stan, for including the outsider as a norm within society.

  2. wisewebwoman says:

    I had an ex who was crazy about McBain and for some reason that put me off. I might try now that I see his lovely use of language :)

    Grammar and Grampa(r), lovely.

    Thanks Stan….


  3. that’s a great piece

  4. thnidu says:

    Yeah, he do. I like. Maybe I gotta read some a his books, too.

    But he does get one other thing wrong: Sign languages are not one-handed. “she raised her right hand and quickly told him…” led me to expect her to be fingerspelling, not signing.

  5. Stan says:

    Vinetta: All credit to McBain.

    WWW: He’s not to everyone’s taste, but if you like tough, lean, unpretentious crime fiction, you can do much worse.

    esampson: It’s a pretty good book.

    thnidu: Not necessarily. I wondered at first if he meant fingerspelling, but as I understand it signing is sometimes one-handed, whether through necessity or for circumstantial reasons.

    • thnidu says:

      I did my graduate work and wrote my dissertation (UC Berkeley) on ASL. Yes, signing can be one-handed. But the amount of material covered in this long utterance is very unlikely to be given by fingerspelling English, unless the narrator doesn’t know ASL – and he’s already told us that she’s using the [nonexistent] “universal language of deaf mutes”.

      Also, raising the hand is strongly indicative of fingerspelling rather than signing. Since the manual content consists almost entirely of rapid changes in handshape, the viewer has to keep their eye directly on the hand or close to it. And since a lot of information is conveyed on the face even in signing, let alone silent mouthing (common though not universal with fingerspelling), the hand has to be closer to the face than is usual in signing.

      So the evidence is extremely strong that McBain was not distinguishing fingerspelling from signing, as well as not realizing that SLs are as different as spoken languages – though that doesn’t reduce the props due him for having a signing deaf character in here, and as the narrator’s beloved wife.

      Thanks again for this post, and the whole blog.

  6. Mise says:

    I’ve read most of McBain in my time, and enjoyed it: although grim at times, his books don’t have the determination to sell via abominable shock and gore that is characteristic of more current authors. And, as you say, he has a deft touch with words.

  7. Vinetta Bell says:

    Impressive, thnidu!

  8. Stan says:

    Mise: Yes on all counts. Another appealing trait is his ability to tell a decent story in 150–200 pages. Not every novel needs to be a sprawling, five-act saga.

    thnidu: Agreed, and thanks for the expert analysis. It does seem as though he wasn’t distinguishing between sign language and fingerspelling. If I read further accounts in his other work, I’ll update this post.

  9. jimtgammill says:

    I think you may have introduced me to something special, I had never read ANY Ed McBain and have looked into him a little since reading your blog. I like his style, save for the ellipses; I always prefer the good ol’ dash!

  10. stuartnz says:

    “‘You can get arrested for using that kind of language,’ Carella said, grinning. ‘It’s a good thing everybody can’t read it.’”

    Sadly, it seems not much as changed since McBain’s time, if reports like this are anything to go by:

    One thing I think NZ has got right is making NZSL one of our three official languages, and there is now a petition circulating to have it taught in secondary schools. No one is gonig to get arrested for signing here, but if they did, at least they can insist on the court proceedings being signed.

    Thanks too to thnidu for the commentary on the differences between ASL and fingerspelling. Fingerspelling is almost non-existent among users of NZSL from what I’ve seen, and from discussions with friends who are fluent in NZSL. The perception here is that finger-spelling is closely identified with ASL, being considered a distinctively American practice. I don’t know much about Auslan, but I have a hazy suspicion that finger-spelling is not as common among its users as it is perceived (perhaps incorrectly) to be among ASL users.

  11. Stan says:

    Jim: I favour the aposiopetic dash too, though I’ve used an ellipsis for particular kinds of interruption – I like to keep my options open. :-) Enjoy McBain.

    Stuart: That’s a bizarre case. How could the school be so ignorant? At least they later reversed their decision, but it’s worrying that they even had to. I recently edited a dissertation that looked at disability rights in different countries (and their adherence to the CRPD); it singled out New Zealand as a good example, owing in part to its comparatively open style of governance and the fact that the disability rights movement is less fragmented there than in other countries.

  12. astraya says:

    Shouldn’t the title be ‘Ask’? (joke)

  13. stuartnz says:

    On the subject of SLs – what verb is preferred to describe communicating through SL? With spoken languages, one ask “do you speak (x)?” ” They’re an L1 speaker” etc. Since I’m ignorant of the culture, I’d like to use the verb preferred by those who aren’t.

    • thnidu says:

      For use in English, “say”, “speak”, and so on are pretty common and well accepted. Of course, for “speak (X)” you can always use “use” or “sign”:

      They were [using / speaking / signing in] LSF,* and while I got some signs here and there I couldn’t really understand what they were saying.
      * langue des signes française:

      Thank you for being concerned about it and asking.


  14. […] a binge of Ed McBain books a few months ago – they often touch on linguistic topics – this week I picked another of his 87th Precinct series off the unread shelf: Let’s Hear It […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: